Collections: Rome: Decline and Fall? Part I: Words

This week we’re going to start tackling a complex and much debated question: ‘how bad was the fall of Rome (in the West)?’ This was the topic that won the vote among the patrons of the ACOUP Senate. The original questions here were ‘what caused the loss of state capacity during the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West’ and ‘how could science fiction better reflect such a collapse or massive change?’ By way of answer, I want to boil those questions down into something a bit more direct: how bad was the fall of Rome in the West?

At first I thought I would try to answer that in a single post but it rapidly became apparent that giving a sufficient answer was going to require multiple weeks: my plan is for three parts (I, II, III). In part I (this part), I want to focus on culture, literature, language and religion (‘words’). In part II, we’ll then turn to look at states and government (‘institutions’), though this will also entail looking at the institutional part of religion, for reasons that will become clear as we get there. Then finally in part III, we’ll turn to look at economics and demographics (‘things and people’), the concrete realia of people’s lives. In all of these, we will mostly be focused on the western empire (with some gestures at the East), but I’ll note here (and no doubt repeatedly subsequently) that this is because the empire didn’t fall in the East, at least not any time remotely around the fifth century. The continued existence of the Eastern Roman Empire is a free, massive point that the change-and-continuity argument gets to score at the beginning of these debates for free, every time.

As will readily be apparent, that significance of that division of topics will be important because this is one of those questions where what you see depends very much on where you look, with scholars engaging with different topics often coming to wildly divergent conclusions about the impact and experience of the fall of Rome. And there is no way to really discuss that divergence (and my own view of it) without diving into the still active debate and presenting the different scholarly views in a sort of duel. I’ll be providing my own judgements, of course, but I intend here to ‘steelman’ each argument, presenting it in what I view as its strongest form; as will some become evident, I think there is some truth to both of the two major current scholarly streams of thought here.

As always, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon; members at the Patres et Matres Conscripti level get to vote on the topics for post-series like this one! And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

Two Knights an Old Man and a Nitwit

So who are our combatants? To understand this, we have to lay out a bit of the ‘history of the history’ – what is called historiography in technical parlance. Here I am also going to note the rather artificial but importance field distinction here between ancient (Mediterranean) history and medieval European history. As we’ll see, viewing this as the end of the Roman period gives quite a different impression than viewing it as the beginning of a new European Middle Ages. The two fields ‘connect’ in Late Antiquity (the term for this transitional period, broadly the 4th to 8th centuries), but most programs and publications are either ancient or medieval and where scholars hail from can lead to different (not bad, different) perspectives.

With that out of the way, the old view, that of Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) and indeed largely the view of the sources themselves, was that the disintegration of the western half of the Roman polity was an unmitigated catastrophe, a view that held largely unchallenged into the last century; Gibbon’s great work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789) gives this school it’s name, ‘decline and fall.’ While I am going at points to gesture to Gibbon’s thinking, we’re not going to debate him; he is the ‘old man’ of our title. Gibbon himself largely exists only in historiographical footnotes1 and intellectual histories; he is not at this point seriously defended nor seriously attacked but discussed as the venerable, but now out of date, origin point for all of this bickering.

The real break with that view came with the work of Peter Brown, initially in his The World of Late Antiquity (1971) and more or less canonically in The Rise of Western Christendom (1st ed. 1996; 2nd ed. 2003, 3rd ed. 2013). The normal way to refer to the Peter Brown school of thought is ‘change and continuity’ (in contrast to the traditional ‘decline and fall’), though I rather like James O’Donnell’s description of it as the Reformation in late antique studies.

Among medievalists2 this reformed view, which focuses on continuity of culture and institutions from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages, remains essentially the orthodoxy, to the point that, for instance, the very recent (and quite excellent) The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe (2021) can present this vision as an uncomplicated fact, describing the “so-called Fall of Rome” and noting that “there was never a moment in the next thousand years in which at least one European or Mediterranean ruler didn’t claim political legitimacy through a credible connection to the empire of the Romans” and that “the idea that Rome “fell” on the other hand, relies upon a conception of homogeneity – of historical stasis…things changed. But things always change” (3-4, 12-3).3 As we’ll see, I don’t entirely disagree with those statements, but they are absolute to a degree that suggests there is no real challenge to the position. There have been a few cracks in this orthodoxy among medievalists, particularly the work of Robin Flemming (a revision, not a clear break, to be sure), to which we’ll return, but the cracks have been relatively few.

While some ancient historians also bought into this view, purchase there has always been uneven and seems, to me at least, now to be waning further. Instead, a process of what James O’Donnell describes as a ‘counter-reformation‘ (which he stoutly resists with his own The Ruin of the Roman Empire; O’Donnell is a declared reformer) is well underway, a response to the ‘change and continuity’ narrative which seeks to update and defend the notion that there really was a fall of Rome and that it really was quite bad actually. This is not, I should note, an effort to revive Gibbon per se; it does not typically accept his understanding of the cause of this decline (and often characterizes exactly what is declining differently). Nevertheless, this position too is sometimes termed the ‘decline and fall’ school. My own sense of the field is that while nearly all ancient historians will feel the need to concede at least some validity to the reformed ‘change and continuity’ vision, that the counter-reformation school is the majority view among ancient historians at this point (in a way that is particularly evident in overview treatments like textbooks or the Cambridge Ancient History (second edition)). We’ll meet many of the core works of this revised ‘decline and fall’ school as we go.

As O’Donnell noted in a 2005 review for the BMCR, the reformed4 school tends to be strongest in the study of the imperial east rather than the west (something that will make a lot of sense in a moment), and in religious and cultural history; the counter-reformation school is stronger in the west than the east and in military and political history, though as we’ll see, to that list must at this point now be added archaeology along with demographic and economic history, at which point the weight of fields tends to get more than a little lopsided.

Those are our two knights – the ‘change and continuity’ knight and the ‘decline and fall’ knight (and our old man Gibbon, long out of his dueling days). To this we must add the nitwit: a popular vision, held by functionally no modern scholars, which represents the Middle Ages in their entirety as a retreat from a position of progress during the Roman period which was only regained during the ‘Renaissance’ (generally represented as a distinct period from the Middle Ages) which then proceeded into the upward trajectory of the early modern period. Intellectually, this vision traces back to what Renaissance thinkers thought about themselves and their own disdain for ‘medieval’ scholastic thinking (that is, to be clear, the thinking of their older teachers), a late Medieval version of ‘this ain’t your daddy’s rock and roll!’

But almost every intellectual movement represents itself as a radical break with the past (including, amusingly, many of the scholastics! Let me tell you about Peter Abelard sometime); as historians we do not generally accept such claims uncritically at face value. For a long time, well into the 19th century, the Renaissance’s cultural cachet in Europe (and the cachet of the classical period where it drew its inspiration) shielded that Renaissance claim from critique; that patina now having worn thin, most scholars now reject it, positioning the Renaissance as a continuation (with variations on the theme) of the Middle Ages, a smooth transition rather than a hard break. At the same time, knowledge of developments within the Middle Ages have made the image of one unbroken ‘Dark Age’ untenable and made clear that the ‘upswing’ of the early modern period was already well underway in the later Middle Ages and in turn had its roots stretching even deeper into the period. It is also worth noting here, that the term ‘Dark Age’ has to do with the survival of evidence, not living conditions: the age was not dark because it was grim, it was dark because we cannot see it as clearly.

The popular version of this idea continues, however, to have a lot of sway in the popular conception of the Middle Ages, encouraged by popular culture that mistakes the excesses of the early modern period for ‘medieval’ superstition and exaggerates the poverty of the medieval period (itself essentialized to its worst elements despite being approximately a millennia long), all summed up in this graph:
We are mostly going to just dunk relentlessly on this graph and yet we will not cover even half of the necessary dunking this graph demands. We may begin by noting that in its last century, the Roman Empire was Christian, a point apparently missed here.

While that sort of vision is not seriously debated by scholars, it needs to be addressed here too, in part because I suspect a lot of the energy behind the ‘change and continuity’ position is in fact to counter some of the worst excesses of this thesis, which for simplicity, we’ll just refer to as ‘The Dung Ages‘ argument, but also because assessing how bad the fall of the Roman Empire in the West was demands that we consider how long-lasting any negative ramifications were.

And with that out of the way, let’s lay some foundation work for what we’re talking about. We’ve had one preamble, yes…but what about second preamble?

A Short History of the (Long) Fifth Century

The chaotic nature of the fragmentation of the Western Roman Empire makes a short recounting of its history difficult but a sense of chronology and how this all played out is going to be necessary so I will try to just hit the highlights.

First, its important to understand that the Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries was not the Roman Empire of the first and second centuries (all AD, to be clear). From 235 to 284, Rome had suffered a seemingly endless series of civil wars, waged against the backdrop of worsening security situations on the Rhine/Danube frontier and a peer conflict in the east against the Sassanid Empire. These wars clearly caused trade and economic disruptions as well as security problems and so the Roman Empire that emerges from the crisis under the rule of Diocletian (r. 284-305), while still powerful and rich by ancient standards, was not as powerful or as rich as in the first two centuries and also had substantially more difficult security problems. And the Romans subsequently are never quite able to shake the habit of regular civil wars.

One of Diocletian’s solutions to this problem was to attempt to split the job of running the empire between multiple emperors; Diocletian wanted a four emperor system (the ‘tetrarchy’ or ‘rule of four’) but what stuck among his successors, particular Constantine (r. 306-337) and his family (who ruled till 363), was an east-west administrative divide, with one emperor in the east and one in the west, both in theory cooperating with each other ruling a single coherent empire. While this was supposed to be a purely administrative divide, in practice, as time went on, the two halves increasing had to make due with their own revenues, armies and administration; this proved catastrophic for the western half, which had less of all of these things (if you are wondering why the East didn’t ride to the rescue, the answer is that great power conflict with the Sassanids). In any event, with the death of Theodosius I in 395, the division of the empire became permanent; never again would one man rule both halves.

Via Wikipedia, the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs, c. 300, originally in Constantinople, now part of the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It depicts the four emperors of Diocletian’s tetrarchy. This is also a wonderful statue for showing the ways in which the Roman Empire had changed during the Crisis of the Third Century (235 – 284); these emperors are not the kind looking civic figures of earlier imperial portraiture. They wear armor, their hands on their swords and their faces set stern, ready to face whatever enemies may come. They’re also more clearly rulers, wearing obvious crowns – this was another trend Diocletian accelerated, making the trappings of the emperor more obviously and openly regal.
Map of the Roman Empire under the Tetrarchy, showing the dioceses and the four Tetrarchs' zones of influence
Via Wikipedia, a map of the division of the empire under Diocletian.

We’re going to focus here almost entirely on the western half of the empire; we’ll come back to the eastern half next week.

The situation on the Rhine/Danube frontier was complex. The peoples on the other side of the frontier were not strangers to Roman power; indeed they had been trading, interacting and occasionally raiding and fighting over the borders for some time. That was actually part of the Roman security problem: familiarity had begun to erode the Roman qualitative advantage which had allowed smaller professional Roman armies to consistently win fights on the frontier. The Germanic peoples on the other side had begun to adopt large political organizations (kingdoms, not tribes) and gained familiarity with Roman tactics and weapons. At the same time, population movements (particularly by the Huns) further east in Europe and on the Eurasian Steppe began creating pressure to push these ‘barbarians’ into the empire. This was not necessarily a bad thing: the Romans, after conflict and plague in the late second and third centuries, needed troops and they needed farmers and these ‘barbarians’ could supply both. But as we’ve discussed elsewhere, the Romans make a catastrophic mistake here: instead of reviving the Roman tradition of incorporation, they insisted on effectively permanent apartness for the new arrivals, even when they came – as most would – with initial Roman approval.

This problem blows up in 378 in an event – the Battle of Adrianople – which marks the beginning of the ‘decline and fall’ and thus the start of our ‘long fifth century.’ The Goths, a Germanic-language speaking people, pressured by the Huns had sought entry into Roman territory; the emperor in the East, Valens, agreed because he needed soldiers and farmers and the Goths might well be both. Local officials, however, mistreated the arriving Goth refugees leading to clashes and then a revolt; precisely because the Goths hadn’t been incorporated into the Roman military or civil system (they were settled with their own kings as ‘allies’ – foederati – within Roman territory), when they revolted, they revolted as a united people under arms. The army sent to fight them, under Valens, engaged foolishly before reinforcements could arrive from the West and was defeated.

In the aftermath of the defeat, the Goths moved to settle in the Balkans and it would subsequently prove impossible for the Romans to move them out. Part of the reason for that was that the Romans themselves were hardly unified. I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds here except to note that usurpers and assassinations among the Roman elite are common in this period, which generally prevented any kind of unified Roman response. In particular, it leads Roman leaders (both generals and emperors) desperate for troops, often to fight civil wars against each other, to rely heavily on Gothic (and later other ‘barbarian’) war leaders. Those leaders, often the kings of their own peoples, were not generally looking to burn the empire down, but were looking to create a place for themselves in it and so understandably tended to militate for their own independence and recognition.
Via Wikipedia, the Stilicho dyptich (395), depicting Flavius Stilicho (359-408), a Roman general, and his wife Serena and their son Eucherius. Stilicho was himself one of these ‘barbarian’ foederati leaders. Of Vandal origins, he served as a high ranking military officer under Theodosius; Stilicho seems to have always considered himself a Roman and portrayed himself as such, but that itself wasn’t uncommon for men like him who found success within the empire.

Indeed, it was in the context of these sorts of internal squabbles that Rome is first sacked, in 410 by the Visigothic leader Alaric. Alaric was not some wild-eyed barbarian freshly piled over the frontier, but a Roman commander who had joined the Roman army in 392 and probably rose to become king of the Visigoths as well in 395. Alaric had spent much of the decade before 410 alternately feuding with and working under Stilicho, a Romanized Vandal, who had been a key officer under the emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395) and a major power-player after his death because he controlled Honorius, the young emperor in the West. Honorius’ decision to arrest and execute Stilicho in 408 seems to have precipitated Alaric’s move against Rome. Alaric’s aim was not to destroy Rome, but to get control of Honorius, in particular to get supplies and recognition from him.

That pattern: Roman emperors, generals and foederati kings – all notionally members of the Roman Empire – feuding, was the pattern that would steadily disassemble the Roman Empire in the West. Successful efforts to reassert the direct control of the emperors on foederati territory naturally created resentment among the foederati leaders but also dangerous rivalries in the imperial court; thus Flavius Aetius, a Roman general, after stopping Atilla and assembling a coalition of Visigoths, Franks, Saxons and Burgundians, was assassinated by his own emperor, Valentinian III in 454, who was in turn promptly assassinated by Aetius’ supporters, leading to another crippling succession dispute in which the foederati leaders emerged as crucial power-brokers. Majorian (r. 457-461) looked during his reign like he might be able to reverse this fragmentation, but his efforts at reform offended the senatorial aristocracy in Rome, who then supported the foederati leader Ricimer (half-Seubic, half-Visigoth but also quite Romanized) in killing Majorian and putting the weak Libius Severus (r. 461-465) on the throne. The final act of all of this comes in 476 when another of these ‘barbarian’ leaders, Odoacer, deposed the latest and weakest Roman emperor, the boy Romulus Augustus (generally called Romulus Augustulus – the ‘little’ Augustus) and what was left of the Roman Empire in the west ceased to exist in practice (Odoacer offered to submit to the authority of the Roman Emperor in the East, though one doubts his real sincerity). Augustulus seems to have taken it fairly well – he retired to an estate in Campania originally built by the late Republican Roman general Lucius Licinius Lucullus and lived out his life there in leisure.

Via Wikipedia, a solidus (gold coin) of Odoacer, struck in the name of the Emperor Zeno and in the style of Eastern Roman solidi.

The point I want to draw out in all of this is that it is not the case that the Roman Empire in the west was swept over by some destructive military tide. Instead the process here is one in which the parts of the western Roman Empire steadily fragment apart as central control weakens: the empire isn’t destroy from outside, but comes apart from within. While many of the key actors in that are the ‘barbarian’ foederati generals and kings, many are Romans and indeed (as we’ll see next time) there were Romans on both sides of those fissures. Guy Halsall, in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West (2007) makes this point, that the western Empire is taken apart by actors within the empire, who are largely committed to the empire, acting to enhance their own position within a system the end of which they could not imagine.5

Via Wikipedia, a map of political divisions in 476, though nominally Odoacer’s kingdom in Italy pledged fealty to the Eastern Roman Empire. it is important to note here that these are political divisions rather than ethnic ones – the Visigoths, Burgundians, Franks made up only a minority of the people (and the ruling class) of the lands they now controlled; most of the Roman population (or really, Gallo-Roman, Ibero-Roman, etc) was still living there too.

It is perhaps too much to suggest the Roman Empire merely drifted apart peacefully – there was quite a bit of violence here and actors in the old Roman ‘center’ clearly recognized that something was coming apart and made violent efforts to put it back together (as Halsall notes, “The West did not drift hopelessly towards its inevitable fate.  It went down kicking, gouging and screaming”) – but it tore apart from the inside rather than being violently overrun from the outside by wholly alien forces.

Living Together

This vision of the collapse of Roman political authority in the West may seem a bit strange to readers who grew up on the popular narrative which still imagines the ‘Fall of Rome’ as a great tide of ‘barbarians’ sweeping over the empire destroying everything in their wake. It’s a vision that remains dominant in popular culture (indulged, for instance, in games like Total War: Attila; we’ve already talked about how strategy games in particular tend to embrace this a-historical annihilation-and-replacement model of conquest). But actually culture is one of the areas where the ‘change and continuity’ crowd have their strongest arguments: finding evidence for continuity in late Roman culture into the early Middle Ages is almost trivially easy. The collapse of Roman authority did not mark a clean cultural break from the past, but rather another stage in a process of cultural fusion and assimilation which had been in process for some time.

Via Wikipedia, a Roman bust of a man, c. 60 BC, now in the Glyptothek, Munich. A lot of what we’re discussing in this section is hard to illustrate, so I am instead going to start loading the bases for one of my later points about art.
This bust, from the Late Roman Republic was typical of a style known as ‘verism’ which aimed to represent the features of an individual very true-to-life, including marks of age and defects.
My apologies in advance to the art historians out there – I am going to do my best to discuss the development of artwork from the Romans into the Middle Ages here, with the relatively meagre technical vocabulary and pool of references I know.

The first thing to remember, as we’ve already discussed, is that the population of the Roman Empire itself was hardly uniform. Rather the Roman empire as it violently expanded, had absorbed numerous peoples – Celtiberians, Iberians, Greeks, Gauls, Syrians, Egyptians, and on and on. Centuries of subsequent Roman rule had led to a process of cultural fusion, whereby those people began to think of themselves as Romani – Romans – as they both adopted previously Roman cultural elements and their Roman counterparts adopted provincial culture elements (like trousers!).6

In particular, by the fifth century, the majority of these self-described Romani, including the overwhelming majority of elites, had already adopted a provincial religion: Christianity, which had in turn become the Roman religion and a core marker of Roman identity by the fifth century. Indeed, the word paganus, increasingly used in this period to refer to the remaining non-Christian population, had a root-meaning of something like ‘country bumpkin,’ reflecting the degree to which for Roman elites and indeed many non-elites, the last fading vestiges of the old Greek and Roman religions were seen as out of touch. Of course Christianity itself came from the fringes of the Empire – a strange mystery cult from the troubled frontier province of Judaea in the Levant which had slowly grown until it had become the dominant religion of the empire, receiving official imperial favor and preference.

Via Wikipedia, the Augustus of Prima Porta, dating from the firt century AD, now in the Vatican Museums, Rome. Already we can begin to see a shift away from the veristic style of the Late Republic. The bronze original for this statue was no earlier than around 20 BC (the breastplate depicts an event, the return of the Parthian standards, from that year), meaning that Augustus would have been at least 43 (and possibly older) when this statue was made, yet the artist renders him not as a middle-aged man but as a youthful figure – no wrinkles, he has all of his hair – with an idealized body and figure. This idealizing style becomes progressively more common in imperial artwork (with exceptions; the emperor Vespasian seems to have preferred the older veristic style), with emperors choosing to be depicted as ideal versions of themselves. Their faces are still recognizable, but the artist isn’t trying to make them true to life, but in a sense, truer than life.

The arrival of the ‘barbarians’ didn’t wipe away that fusion culture. With the exception of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who eventually ended up in England, the new-comers almost uniformly learned the language of the Roman west – Latin – such that their descendants living in those lands, in a sense still speak it, in its modern forms: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, etc. alongside more than a dozen local regional dialects. All are derived from Latin (and not, one might note, from the Germanic languages that the Goths, Vandals, Franks and so on would have been speaking when they crossed the Roman frontier).

They also adopted the Roman religion, Christianity. I suspect sometimes the popular imagination – especially the one that comes with those extraordinarily dumb ‘Christian dark age’ graphs – is that when the ‘barbarians invade’ the Romans were still chilling in their Greco-Roman7 temples, which the ‘barbarians’ burned down. But quite to the contrary – the Romans were the ones shutting down the old pagan temples at the behest of the now Christian Roman emperors, who busied themselves building beautiful and marvelous churches (a point The Bright Ages makes very well in its first chapter).

The ‘barbarians’ didn’t tear down those churches – they built more of them. There was some conflict here – many of the Germanic peoples who moved into the Roman Empire had been converted to Christianity before they did so (again, the Angles and Saxons are the exception here, converting after arrival), but many of them had been converted through a bishop, Ulfilias, from Constantinople who held to a branch of Christian belief called ‘Arianism’ which was regarded as heretical by the Roman authorities. The ‘barbarians’ were thus, at least initially, the wrong sort of Christian and this did cause friction in the fifth century, but by the end of the sixth century nearly all of these new kingdoms created in the wake of the collapse of Roman authority were not only Christian, but had converted to the officially accepted Roman ‘Chalcedonian’ Christianity. We’ll come back later to the idea of the Church as an institution, but for now as a cultural marker, it was adopted by the ‘barbarians’ with aplomb.

Via Wikipedia, our Four Tretrarchs again, c. 305. Here we can see that idealizing trend carried further. The stonework here still shows tremendous skill – notice the tiny details on the sword scabbards, or the folds of the cloaks – but idealism has now given way to stylization. The emperors are no longer identifiable as individuals (we aren’t quite sure which four tetrarchs these are), but rather they represent the idea of emperors, simplified down to their most important attributes: stern faces, crowns, swords and armor, their embrace showing solidarity, ready to meet the enemies of Rome together. The artist is not trying to represent the emperors photographically, but rather trying – and succeeding – at representing the ideal emperors, who fully embody the qualities an emperor should.

Artwork also sees the clear impact of cultural fusion. Often this transition is, I think, misunderstood by students whose knowledge of artwork essentially ‘skips’ Late Antiquity, instead jumping directly from the veristic8 Roman artwork of the late republic and the idealizing artwork of the early empire directly to the heavily stylized artwork of Carolingian period and leads some to conclude that the fall of Rome made the artists ‘bad.’ There are two problems: the decline here isn’t in quality and moreover the change didn’t happen with the fall of the Roman Empire but quite a bit earlier. Hopefully you have been following along with the pictures in this section because they carry a fair bit of my argument here.

Late Roman artwork shows a clear shift into stylization, the representation of objects in a simplified, conventional way. You are likely familiar with many modern, highly developed stylized art forms; the example I use with my students is anime. Anime makes no effort at direct realism – the lines and shading of characters are intentionally simplified, but also bodies are intentionally drawn at the wrong proportions, with oversized faces and eyes and sometimes exaggerated facial expressions. That doesn’t mean it is bad art – all of that stylization is purposeful and requires considerable skill – the large faces, simple lines and big expressions allow animated characters to convey more emotion (at a minimum of animation budget).
Via Wikipedia, the Stilicho dyptich again, dated to 395 and now in Monza, Italy. Here I want you to notice how the trend towards stylization continues here straight from our earlier Roman emperors. Still, the level of skill here is impressive – look at those folds! – but all of the members of the family are now represented as idealized figures, the idea of an elite Roman family more than individuals. They’ve adopted standard, stylized poses as well, from the son Eucherius’ religious gesture to Stilicho’s ready position with his spear. While this art is being commissioned by a ‘barbarian,’ it represents a clear continuation of the trends in Roman art from the earlier fourth century.

Late Roman artwork moves the same way, shifting from efforts to portray individuals as real-to-life as possible (to the point where one can recognize early emperors by their facial features in sculpture, a task I had to be able to perform in some of my art-and-archaeology graduate courses) to efforts to portray an idealized version of a figure. No longer a specific emperor – though some identifying features might remain – but the idea of an emperor. Imperial bearing rendered into a person. That trend towards stylization continues into religious art in the early Middle Ages for the same reason: the figures – Jesus, Mary, saints, and so on – represent ideas as much as they do actual people and so they are drawn in a stylized way to serve as the pure expressions of their idealized nature. Not a person, but holiness, sainthood, charity, and so on.

And it really only takes a casual glance at the artwork I’ve been sprinkling through this section to see how early medieval artwork, even out through the Carolingians (c. 800 AD) owes a lot to late Roman artwork, but also builds on that artwork, particularly by bringing in artistic themes that seem to come from the new arrivals – the decorative twisting patterns and scroll-work which often display the considerable technical skill of an artist (seriously, try drawing some of that free-hand and you suddenly realize that graceful flowing lines in clear symmetrical patterns are actually really hard to render well).
Via Wikipedia, the ivory book cover of the Codex Aureus Laurensius or Lorsch Gospels, produced c. 800 AD. While this work dates from well into the Middle Ages, one can clearly see how it draws and builds on the stylized artwork of the Late Antique period (in this case, quite consciously).

All of the cultural fusion was effectively unavoidable. While we can’t know their population with any certainty, the ‘barbarians’ migrating into the faltering western Empire who would eventually make up the ruling class of the new kingdoms emerging from its collapse seem fairly clearly to have been minorities in the lands they settled into (with the notable exception, again, of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – as we’re going to see this pattern again and again, Britain has an unusual and rather more traumatic path through this period than much of the rest of Roman Europe). They were, to a significant degree, as Guy Halsall (op. cit.) notes, melting into a sea of Gallo-Romans, or Italo-Romans, or Ibero-Romans.
Via Wikipedia, an 11th century Anglo-Saxon cross reliquary, which mixes scrollwork patterns and animal motifs typical of insular migration period artwork with stylized figures whose designs reach back into late Roman artwork.

Even Bryan Ward-Perkins, one of the most vociferous members of the decline-and-fall camp, in his explosively titled The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005) – this is a book whose arguments we will come back to in some detail – is forced to concede that “even in Britain the incomers[sic] had not dispossessed everyone” of their land, but rather “the invaders entered the empire in groups that were small enough to leave plenty to share with the locals” (66-7). No vast replacement wave this, instead the new and old ended up side by side. Indeed, Odoacer, seizing control of Italy in 476, we are told, redistributed a third of the land; it’s unclear if this meant the land itself or the tax revenue on it, but in either case clearly the majority of the land remained in the hands of the locals which, by this point in the development of the Roman countryside, will have mostly meant in the hands of the local aristocracy.9
Via Wikipedia, a historiated initial C in an illuminated manuscript. Note the intricate scrollwork on the letter.

Instead, as Ralph Mathisen documents in Roman aristocrats in barbarian Gaul: strategies for survival in an age of transition (1993), most of the old Roman aristocracy seems to have adapted to their changing rulers. As we’ll discuss next week, the vibrant local government of the early Roman empire had already substantially atrophied before the ‘barbarians’ had even arrived, so for local notables who were rich but nevertheless lived below the sort of mega-wealth that could make one a player on the imperial stage, little real voice in government was lost when they traded a distant, unaccountable imperial government for a close-by, unaccountable ‘barbarian’ one. Instead, as Mathisen notes, some of the Gallo-Roman elite retreat into their books and estates, while more are co-opted into the administration of these new breakaway kingdoms, who after all need literate administrators beyond what the ‘barbarians’ can provide. Mathisen notes that in other cases, Gallo-Roman aristocrats with ambitions simply transferred those ambitions from the older imperial hierarchy to the newer ecclesiastical one; we’ll talk more about the church as an institution next week. Distinct in the fifth century, by the end of the sixth century in Gaul, the two aristocracies: the barbarian warrior-aristocracy and the Gallo-Roman civic aristocracy had melded into one, intermarried and sharing the same religion, values and culture.

In this sense there really is a very strong argument to be made that the ‘Romans’ and indeed Roman culture never left Rome’s lost western provinces – the collapse of the political order did not bring with it the collapse of the Roman linguistic or cultural sphere, even if it did fragment it.

Via Wikipedia, the Empress Theodora (490-548) from the Basilica San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, rendered in brilliant mosaic (another panel depicts her husband, Justinian I). Here too, you can see the legacy of late Roman idealized and stylized artwork, this time in the Byzantine tradition.

But surely the barbarians burned all of the libraries, right? Or the church, bent on creating a ‘Christian dark age’ tore up all of the books?


Well, no.

Here I think the problem is the baseline we assess this period against. Most people are generally aware that the Greeks and Romans wrote a lot of things and that we have relatively few of them. Even if we confine ourselves only to very successful, famous Greek and Roman literature, we still only have perhaps a low single-digit percentage of it, possibly only a fraction of a percent of it. In our post-printing-press and now post-internet world, famous works of literature do not simply vanish, generally and it is intuitive to assume that all of these lost works must have been the result of some catastrophe or intentional sabotage.

I am regularly, for instance, asked how I feel about the burning of the Library of Alexandria. The answer is…not very much. The library burned more than once and by the time it did it was no longer the epicenter of learning in the Mediterranean world. Instead, the library slowly declined as it became less unique because other libraries amassed considerable collections. There was no great, tragic moment where countless works were all lost in an instant. That’s not how the chain of transmission breaks. Because a break in the chain of transmission requires no catastrophe – it merely requires neglect.

The literature of the Greeks and Romans (and the rest of the ancient iron age Mediterranean) were largely written on papyrus paper, arranged into scrolls.10 The problem here is that papyrus is quite vulnerable to moisture and decay; in the prevailing conditions in much of Europe papyrus might only last a few decades. Ancient papyri really only survive to the present in areas of hard desert (like Egypt, conveniently), but even in antiquity, books written on papyrus would have been constantly wearing out and needing to be replaced.

Via Wikipedia, a second century papyrus record, in this case a bill of sale for a donkey, P.Fay.92 (MS Gr Sm2223. Houghton Library, Harvard University), originally from the Fayum, Egypt. These sorts of documents almost exclusively survive in very arid areas like Egypt.

Consequently, it didn’t require anyone going out and destroying books to cause a break in the chain of transmission: all that needed to happen was for the copying to stop, even fairly briefly. Fortunately for everyone, Late Antiquity was bringing with it a new writing material, parchment, and a new way of putting it together, the codex or book. The transition from papyrus to parchment begins in the fourth century, but some books are still being produced in papyrus in the 7th century, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean. Whereas papyrus is a paper made of papyrus stalks pressed together, parchment is essentially a form of leather, cleaned, soaked in calcium lye and scraped very thin. The good news is that as a result, parchment lasts – I have read without difficulty from 1200 year old books written on parchment (via microfilm) and paged through 600 year old books with my own hands. Because making it requires animal hide, parchment was extremely expensive (and still is) but its durability is a huge boon to us because it means that works that got copied onto parchment during the early middle ages often survive on that parchment down to the present.

Via Wikipedia, a good example of what a bound, parchment codex looks like, in this case a 1385 copy of a German legal code. You can see the leather binding (not all or even most codices would have had clasps) to protect the pages, which you can see in the reflection. The parchment is thick and durable and quite easy still to read even though this book is more than 600 years old.

But of course that means that the moment of technological transition from short-lived papyrus to long-lasting parchment was always going to be the moment of loss in transition: works that made it to parchment would largely survive to the present, while works that were not copied in that fairly narrow window (occupying Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages) would be permanently lost. And that copying was no simple thing: it was expensive and slow. The materials were expensive, but producing a book also required highly trained scribes (often these were monks) who would hand copy, letter by letter, the text for hundreds of pages. And, for reasons we’ll talk about later in this series, the resources available for this kind of copying would hit an all-time-low during the period from the fifth to the seventh centuries – this was expensive work for poor societies to engage in.

And here it is worth thus stopping to note how exceptional a moment of preservation this period is. The literary tradition of Mediterranean antiquity represents the oldest literary tradition to survive in an unbroken line of transmission to the present (alongside Chinese literature).11 The literary traditions of the Bronze Age (c. 3000-1200 BC and the period directly before antiquity broadly construed) were all lost and had to be rediscovered, with stone and clay tablets recovered archaeologically and written languages reconstructed. The Greeks and Romans certainly made little effort to preserve the literature of those who went before them!12

In that context, what is actually historically remarkable here is not that the people of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages lost some books – books had always been being lost, since writing began – but that they saved some books.13 Never before had a literary tradition been saved in this way. Of course these early copyists didn’t always copy what we might like. Unsurprisingly, Christian monks copying books tended to copy a lot more religious texts (both scriptures but also patristic texts). Moreover, works that were seen as important for teaching good Latin (Cicero, Vergil, etc.) tended to get copied more as well, though this is nothing new; the role of the Iliad and the Odyssey in teaching Greek is probably why their manuscript traditions are so incredibly robust. In any event, far from destroying the literature of classical antiquity, it was the medieval Church itself that was the single institution most engaged in the preservation of it.

At the same time, writers in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries did not stop writing (or stop reading). Much of the literature of this period was religious in nature, but that is no reason to dismiss it (far more of the literature of the Classical world was religious in nature than you likely think, by the by). St. Augustine of Hippo was writing during the fifth century; indeed his The City of God, one of the foundational works of Christian literature, was written in response to the news of the sack of Rome in 410. Isidore of Seville (560-636) was famous for his Etymologies, an encyclopedia of sorts which would form the foundation for much of medieval learning and which in its summaries preserves for us quite a lot of classical bits and bobs which would have otherwise been lost; he also invented the period, comma and colon. Pope Gregory I (540-604) was also a prolific writer, writing hundreds of letters, a collection of four books of dialogues, a life of St. Benedict, a book on the role of bishops, a commentary on the Book of Job and so on. The Rule of St. Benedict, since we’ve brought the fellow up, written in 516 established the foundation for western monasticism.

And while we’ve mostly left the East off for this post, we should also note that writing hardly stopped there. Near to my heart, the emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) wrote the Strategikon, an important and quite informative manual of war which presents, among other things, a fairly sophisticated vision of combined arms warfare. Roman law also survived in tremendous quantities; the emperor Theodosius II (r. 402-450) commissioned the creation of a streamlined law code compiling all of the disparate Roman laws into the Codex Theodosianus, issued in 439. Interestingly, Alaric II (r. 457-507), king of the Visigoths in much of post-Roman Spain would reissue the code as past of the law for his own kingdom in 506 as part of the Breviary of Alaric. Meanwhile, back at Constantinople, Justinian I (r. 527-565) commissioned an even more massive collection of laws, the Corpus Iuris Civilis, issued from 529 to 534 in four parts; a colossal achievement in legal scholarship, it is almost impossible to overstate how important the Corpus Iuris Civilis is for our knowledge of Roman law.

And it is not hard again to see how these sorts of literary projects represented a continuing legacy of Roman culture too (particularly the Roman culture of the third and fourth century), concerned with Roman law, Roman learning and the Roman religion, Christianity. And so when it comes to culture and literature, it seems that the change-and-continuity knight holds the field – there is quite a lot of evidence for the survival of elements of Roman culture in post-Roman western Europe, from language, to religion, to artwork and literature. Now we haven’t talked about social and economic structures (that’s part III), so one might argue we haven’t quite covered all of ‘culture’ just yet, and it is necessary to note that this continuity was sometimes uneven. Nevertheless, the fall of Rome can hardly be said to have been the end of Roman culture.

Next time, we’ll turn to the institutions of the Roman world: cities, government, administration, and the Church and see how they fared.

  1. The sort of footnote where you show that you have read and understood the history of the debate you are about to comment on. When this sort of footnote ascends to being part of the actual text of a work, it is called a ‘literature review.’
  2. I am going to refer here to ‘ancient historians’ and ‘medievalists’ here because I think there is a noticeable difference in how the two fields on either side of this period tend to think about it. Of course these labels can be reductive to a degree so please understand them as necessary simplifications of the shape of the field
  3. I do not mean here to trash The Bright Ages, which I think on the whole is very good and probably due for a fireside recommendation. That said, I did find myself somewhat frustrated by the first few chapters which embrace the ‘change and continuity’ school as if there was no serious challenge to it – as we’ll see, an absolutist position I do not think can survive the evidence. I was much more frustrated by the deflection to insist that the only way one can imagine there was a ‘fall’ was to be the sort of person convinced that “Germans couldn’t really be Romans, women couldn’t really be rulers, etc.” (13) It is an ad hominem deflection unworthy of the rest of the book. Anyone even passingly acquainted with my writings here on this blog will know that I absolutely think Germans could be Romans and women were rulers. The implication of the deflection does a disservice to the lay reader who may thus be mislead as to the existence of real counter-arguments.
  4. that is, ‘change and continuity’
  5. That position isn’t unchallenged, mind you. P. Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History (2006) makes the opposing argument that the Germanic peoples were a coherent ethnic grouping that displaced the pre-existing Roman culture. Here I think Halsall has the better of the argument, both in the sense that the various Germanic peoples were hardly a single group but also that they seem more to have fused with the Roman cultural fabric than replaced it, as we’ll see.
  6. Often for the sake of clarity, we’ll refer to the Latin-speaking provincials of this period as Gallo-Romans, Ibero-Romans or Romano-Britons or the like. Nevertheless in our sources these fellows tend to be quite clear that they think of themselves as Romans, whatever other local habits they may have.
  7. The Romanist in me feels the need to note that I am using this term because I have no doubt it is the one I’d hear in this context, but Greek and Roman temples are, in fact, structurally different, just as Greek and Roman religion was, in fact, meaningfully distinct
  8. Real to life.
  9. Now we’ll come back to the economic implications of this later, for now we are merely noting that the existing population was not pushed aside or wiped out
  10. By the by, I think we’ll come back sometime this year and do a series on ‘How Did They Make It: Books’ but in the meantime, there is a solid introduction in the first section of B. Bischoff, Latin Paleography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, trans. D. O. Cróinin and D. Ganz (1990)
  11. Please note before anyone rushes to the comment that I have drawn this particular definition – the literary tradition of Mediterranean antiquity – broad enough to also encompass the Torah.
  12. Though I will say that the Greeks in particular did make more of an effort than most ancient civilizations to write about the myths and cultures that surrounded them. The sort of ethnographic curiosity of Herodotus or Plutarch is quite hard to find in most places.
  13. Of course we are mostly focused here on the Latin tradition which tended to survive in the West, though the same here might well be said for the Greek tradition, mostly preserved in the East, in the remains of the Eastern Roman Empire and also in the Islamic world.

275 thoughts on “Collections: Rome: Decline and Fall? Part I: Words

  1. Great start to what I am sure will be a great series! I do have several questions though.

    1)You mention the Crisis of the Third Century and the mass of civil wars that both were a cause and a symptom of the political fragmentation of the WRE that would persist until it no longer existed as a political entity. I’ll admit my knowledge of the Early Imperial period is fairly sparse, but why weren’t you having civil wars left right and center during the 1st and 2nd centuries? After all, they were sandwiched by periods of endemic civil war on both sides.

    2) Why did the shift to parchment happen in a large scale around Late Antiquity? I know for a fact that most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were made of parchment (although some were Papyrus, and interestingly, there are a couple of “scrolls” made on engraved copper) and considerably older than Late Antiquity. So there must have been at least a few people making parchment prior to that.

    3) I never played Atilla: Total war. But I did play the earlier RTW: Barbarian invasions. And in that older game, as the WRE, it was definitely the case that your own internal issues tended to be way bigger than huge hordes of barbarians swarming across the Danube. (In fact, one of the keys to surviving as the WRE is to try to maneuver the rebels and the external invaders into fighting each other whenever possible). And the introduction of the “Loyalty” mechanic caused you endless headaches. I had more than one army sent out to subdue those invaders turn against me, often supplementing the forces I sent them out with with the very barbarians they were supposed to be stomping on. Not that I’m claiming BI is some model of historical accuracy, but it certainly seemed more nuanced than what you’re presenting with the later game. And these are made by the same company and only about 10 years apart. What do you think caused the shift in presentation?

    1. I’m only going to touch on the first point because the other ones are out of my wheelhouse, but there were several civil wars in the 1st and 2nd century (mostly the 1st, though the closing of the 2nd century was quite violent).

      These civil wars though were not as long lasting as the ones that would happen later, and they happened against a backdrop of good times for the empire – the plagues, fiscal mismanagement and external pressures that would characterize the 3rd century had not manifested yet.

    2. re the papyrus-parchment transition: It was a gradual and lengthy process. Parchment was probably invented sometime in the 1st millennium BCE, somewhere in the middle east. It took a long time to become ubiquitous. In the Roman world it actually first gets mentioned in the late Republic as an alternative to wax covered wooden tablets for making notes.

      As far as books went, papyrus was traditional, and parchment was a new thing, seen as less desirable. It was cheaper than parchment and supplies were less constrained – it’s easier to plant more fields with papyrus plants than it is to raise more cows/sheep. But most of all, the papyrus export buisness was a HUGE industry in Egypt with a lot of capital behind it, and those papyrus makers and exporters worked hard to maintain their monopoly and keep parchment manufacturers from gaining a foothold. Parchment gradually gained popularity due to its durability, but it became the primary writing material only where transport costs made papyrus more expensive. The dissolution of the empire in the West threw up trade barriers, obviously. In the East, and in Arabia, papyrus continued to be used alongside parchment, and Egypt continued to manufacture and export it right down until the arrival of paper in the Islamic world at the end of the first millennium CE.

      Reference: “The Birth of the Codex” by Colin Roberts and T C Skeat. I wrote about this on my blog at length a few months ago.

      1. “hose papyrus makers and exporters worked hard to maintain their monopoly and keep parchment manufacturers from gaining a foothold”

        How did they do that?

        1. I imagine the main tools were bribes to the right lawmakers to get higher tariffs/taxes on parchment, and using their vast stores of wealth to undercut folks trying to get a parchment business going until their competitor collapsed. Not too different from modern economics.

        2. Papyrus was simply cheaper and more available than parchment – and most writing is ephemeral. After all, the papyri found in Egyptian deposits are mostly bills of sale, school exercises and other mundane notes. A 20 year lifespan is no problem for these. If your average Roman lending library attached to a public bath wanted a collection of stories (eg the many Hellenistic novels featuring separated lovers, pirates and mistaken identity – the classical equivalent of Mills & Boon) then papyrus scrolls were on offer from the scriptorium around the corner. Papyrus was the equivalent of the file note and the paperback; parchment was the hardcover.

    3. I’ve played Barbarian Invasion and Atilla a lot and I think you missinterpret Brett’s point. In both games the Western Roman Empire has obvious and historical internal problems.
      If/when a barbarian horde settles in a formerly Roman region, that region becomes a gothic/Aleman/whatever region not just politically but culturally and (implicitly) ethnically. The player (or AI) can only build buildings of it’s own culture and remaining Roman buildings provide a public order malus.
      Brett’s argument is that in reality the culture and ethnicity of a conquered region stayed mostly Roman. That is: in reality the invaders were mostly absorbed, whereas in the games the invaders replace the Romans.

      In this aspect there is no discontinuity between Rome: Barbarian Invasions and Atilla.

    4. Attila tends to actually give nods to the cultural synthesis thing, both in the actual main campaign (the ostrogoths can continue to make use of “roman” style buildings, the other “migrator” factions can more cheaply conver them, and the western romans can recruit units from friendly “barbarian” tribes)

      The major faction they actually do a disservice to are the huns,

    5. I’d also note that the WRE in Attila has the same thing: The barbarians aren’t really the major problem, and any proper army can probably defeat them, the problem is that there are too many fronts to cover, that your economy is dogshit, everyone is unhappy, fixing all of those things requires money, and the climate keeps getting worse which means you have to constantly change your provincial building setups (away from wheat and towards goats, mostly…) to account for that. And all of those things cost money…

    6. Expanding on the first question (and answered by others), part of the stability at the beginning of the imperial period comes from the fact that there simply weren’t any nobles with the standing to make a play for the throne – the preceding civil wars had killed them off.

      Then Octavianus/Augustus ensured that ambitious senators would be denied opportunities to gain military glory and potentially the loyalty of the legions by arranging to control the vast majority of the legions and to appoint only his loyalists.

      This mostly works until 69CE when a usurper leads some German legions in rebellion, Nero offs himself and the senate in turn appoint Galba as the new emperor who in turn gets offed by Otho who bribed the Praetorians, who in turns offs himself after his army loses a battle against that original usurper, Vitellius, who in turn gets offed when he loses a battle against another general, Vespasianus, who was also taking a run for the purple.

      After Flavian dynasty the following emperors generally adopted their replacement allowing them to select experienced proven military men. Once again, these men had the stature, popularity, and skill to keep the legions loyal and the populace content. It kinda fell apart when Marcus Aurelius appointed his actual son who’s a bit of a disaster prompting an assassination and then civil war with 5 emperors in 193.

      During this period, it seems one required a senatorial background in addition to access to a loyal army. When we get to the year of the five emperors we start to see men of equestrian origin feeling like they could make a play for the throne. By the later centuries the mystique of noble birth seems to have faded completely and the main requirement became a loyal army, usually acquired through successful military campaigns.

    7. AFAIK
      A Roman Empereors legitimacy wasfounded on his protection of the empire, if he or the empire lacked the ressources to do so he lost it,
      So if Gaul was invaded and the Balkans and he could only defend one at the moment, he lost his legitinacy

    8. In terms of the cultural continuity in action, Scots law has a strong civilian tradition. To the point that you could probably quote the Corpus Iuris Civilis (or the Institutes of Justin’s as its often referred to) in a Scottish court and not be laughed at. It was a compulsory part of the law syllabus at my university.

  2. One of the signs of the fall of Rome is the depopulation of the cities. How much of that is due to politically forced economic collapse, from a climate change, and/or from natural disasters like the plague of Justinian and the big volcanic eruptions from the first half of fifth century that caused a decade long ice age?

    1. Came here to mention that. Although part 1 focuses mostly on the fifth century, any look at European history in late antiquity/ early medieval times has to acknowledge the natural catastrophes of the sixth century. Similar to the role of the Thera cataclysm in either causing or cementing the late Bronze Age collapse.

      1. No, part I is about culture.

        “In part I (this part), I want to focus on culture, literature, language and religion (‘words’)”

        “finally in part III, we’ll turn to look at economics and demographics”

      2. Exact dating of the Thera eruption is controversial but all the serious suggestions are around 1600 BC ± 50 years or so. Perhaps a little early to have played a role in the post 1200 late bronze age collapse.

  3. So, I see online graphs (a _bit_ better than the one you rightly dunk on at the beginning of your article, I hope) which show that the population of Rome (the city) did, in fact, decline precipitously at about the time we think of “the fall of Rome”, at least when viewed from the standpoint of centuries. Then, it remains low until about the time of the Renaissance, when it starts to rise again. Most people mean something more than just population when they talk about “the fall of Rome”, but it is at least indicative of the ability of the society to maintain a large urban center. I will be curious to hear how the “continuity and change” knight does in regards to alleged data such as that. Interesting topic!

    1. It bears mentioning that Rome ceased to the capital of its own empire under Constantine (in 325 A.D. IIRC). Under the east/west division, it wasn’t even the capital of the west.

      1. Even before then, Diocletian’s “imperial colleague” Maximian ruled the western provinces from Milan rather than Rome. A pop history writer I read speculated that both of them were country boys who disliked ‘The City’ and its privileges (Diocletian himself never even visited Rome)

        1. I suspect that the real pattern was with the increasing militarisation of rule during the Crisis, where the role of Emperor as commander of the army was prioritised over his role as civic leader – and indeed an Emperor who didn’t have a loyal army at his back was likely to be overthrown by one who did. At the same time, the weakening of the central administration caused by this instabilty led to more pressure on the frontiers, which meant the soldier-Emperors had to spend more time out on campaign and Rome was no longer a suitable base of operations. The model of rule used by Augustus or Antoninus where they were able to rule from Rome and delegate military affairs completely simply didn’t work during a protracted period of barracks emperors and civil wars.

          Rome clearly retained some symbolic importance, otherwise Aurelian wouldn’t have invested in its walls (and the new fortifications proved their worth when Maxentius came to defend them), and may still have been the economic capital of the west, but the political capital was most likely “wherever the Emperor currently is”.

          Diocletian (and Maximian) may have been provincials who disliked the metropolis on principle but I imagine that the official shift of government to Milan and Nicomedia (and later Constantinople) was really more about formalising the reality of the situation as it existed than it was about making a statement snubbing the old city.

    2. One important point to remember is that the population of a single city is a good proxy for the fortunes of that particular city, but not so much for the fortunes of the entire civilization that city is a part of.

      Athens, for example, was probably a lot more prominent and wealthy and quite possibly more populous in 450 BC than in 250 BC, but that doesn’t mean Greek civilization as a whole was in decline or had been declining steadily during that time. New centers of power had become more significant, and a lot of resources that were formerly diverted to swell up one place (think “Delian League”) were instead staying at home or going elsewhere.

      Likewise, the massive population of the city of Rome during the late Republic and early/mid-Empire was the result of the Romans systematically taxing and pillaging much of the wealth of the Mediterranean and putting it into the hands of a Rome-centered aristocracy, one which made it a major component of state policy to ensure massive grain imports from as far away as Egypt, all funneling into Rome. Rome’s ability to become a mega-city by ancient standards was inseparable from its status as an imperial capital, and once it lost that status it was inevitably going to shrink back down towards something more in line with the size of other major Mediterranean cities.

      1. All Roman cities declined in size. The qulity of living (sewers, aqueducts, roads) was kept by inertia (initial good engineering) until they were wrekced by the first war / earthquake. Afterwards the cities declined even faster.

        1. I’m sure you’re right- it’s just that Rome in particular had entirely separate reasons to shrink in size much more than most other Roman cities, so it’s an unusually bad example.

    3. IMHO a simple answer is that the city Rome was an artificially large urban center sustained on tribute of the whole empire, transferring wealth (much of it in the form of grain) from provinces to Rome. As soon as the empire gets divided, this wealth and grain starts enriching (and populating!) the local urban centers instead of the city of Rome. Major capitals are not fed solely by manufacturing and trade, they are fed by extraction of agriculture not only from local regions but by the governing elites extracting value of far-away holdings throughout the empire. The city of Constantinople would not be possible without a decline of the city of Rome, it required that the extracted surplus of Greek and Anatolian lands stops going to elites living in Rome and starts going to elites living in Constantinople instead, the same applies for Paris and other regions.

      1. I think this is right– and North African and Sicilian grain is a big part of the picture; once it’s being directed to Constantinople, it’s not going to Rome. Neither is as much Imperial patronage and administrative work.

  4. Great stuff as always, Dr. Devereaux. I think this is an appropriate place to share an interview of Polymnia Athanassiadi by Anthony Kaldellis, more focused on the Roman east than the west. If we insist on categories, let’s say that Kaldellis is in the continuity and change school and Athanassiadi is in the decline and fall school.

    “A conversation with Polymnia Athanassiadi (University of Athens) about the way of life that ended in late antiquity. Scholars of Byzantium and the Middle Ages may see this as a period of new beginnings, but Polymnia doesn’t want us to forget the practices and urban values that came to an end during it. The conversation touches on issues raised throughout her papers collected in Mutations of Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Variorum Ashgate 2015), as well as the concept of “monodoxy” explored in Vers la pensée unique: La montée de l’intolerance dans l’Antiquité tardive (Les Belles Lettres 2010).”

  5. Looking at the end of the Western Roman Empire, that’s a bear of a job. I’m happy to see your version of it, though, and even happier to see you presenting the leading debating theories. My own contribution is merely in pointing out a couple of mispellings.

    “while still powerful and rich by ancient standards, was not as powerful or as rich as in the first two centuries and also had substantially more difficulty security problems.”

    I believe the writing should be “substantially more difficult security problems.”

    “The peoples on the other side of the frontier were not strangers to Roman power; indeed they had been trading, interacting and occasionally raiding and fighting over the boarders for some time.”

    Again, I think this should be “borders,” not “boarders.”

          1. Matt, more than one volunteer would be better, as they often catch different stuff (editor and proofreader here, as well as someone who does a lot of writing). On the subject of proofreading: I know that I will not contribute to Prof. Devereaux’s Patreon until his writing is properly proofread.

          2. If you’re an editor and proofreader, then you know that we’re probably talking about line editing, rather than proper proofreading.

    1. “(Odoacer offered to submit to the authority of the Roman Emperor in the West, though one doubts his real sincerity)”

      Is that supposed to be East? What with the caption mentioning Emperor Zeno below.

  6. Great topic for a series! Concerning the Tetrarchs wearing crowns, it might surprise some Rome-fanboys that Aurelian was the first Emperor to introduce the royal diadem, at least according to the Epitome De Caesaribus

  7. If I may add to the dunking on that nitwit’s graph, here’s a question:
    If there WAS a big old collapse of science, of cultural complexity and all that jazz, how does that square with the whole colonialism thing emanating from Europe as oppposed to yanno…China?
    Like, maybe my problem is I’m coming from this at a weird angle forged from two seperate bits of pop history, and forcing them to defend each other but…

    1. Well that’s obvious. See, the Chinese were far too enlightnened to go out and conquer and exploit faraway peoples, they had everything they needed right there in China. It was only the EVIL Europeans who had regressed into comedic levels of stupidity and greed because they adopted Christianity that felt a need to swarm out all over the world to spread their virus of a religion and steal things from others!

      (This is of course a sarcastic take, but I’ve heard elements of it expressed in all seriousness)

      1. The kind of people that buy into the christian dark ages also tend to believe modern western culture is the epitome of all that is good.

        They don’t actually ever think about china or india or anything outside europe

      2. The people I’ve seen making dunked-graph-esque takes are usually more eager to downplay non-European accomplishments than their historical atrocities. They’d probably say that Europe got global imperialism before China because China didn’t have any Greco-Roman culture to rediscover. And hey, it just so happens that the Renaissance took place just a bit before Colombus discovered America! There’s probably a causal link there, right?

    2. Serious answer: Europe was rather a backwater during the medieval, and only caught up to the various Chinese, Indian, Turkish and Mongolian empires with the conquest of the Americas. The second question is “why did no-one else colonize Europe during that interval” and the answer to that is twofold. They did where they could (see: Al-Andalus, parts of Italy and France) and the land was valuable. However, the technologies that made resource extraction from administratively undeveloped regions logistically viable (namely, rails) did not yet exist.

      1. Europe was on-par or actually ahead of Middle East and Asia from about 1000 AD. The Europeans reconquered Sicily, Anatolia, Cyprus, Spain, forced the integration of Hungary, Poland and Russia into Christian oikumene. They also rolled back the Mongols and kept them confined into Ukraine. Overall they did better compared to Song, Kwarazm or the Mameluks.

        1. The Year 1000 is a bit early – the Mongols were in the 1200s, as was Los Navas de Tolosa. Hungary, Poland and Russia were not “forced” into Christianity. Fairer to say that by 1200 the wealthier parts of Europe (southern Britain, Northern Italy, northern France, the Netherlands, the Rhinelands…) were on a par with the wealthier parts of China, India or the Middle East. It was not until 1700 or later that Europe started to really pull ahead.

        2. It wasn’t so much that Hungary won, so much as Batu lost. See, ya boy Batu never read Bret’s post on how the Mongols weren’t magical teleporting warmasters, and relied on complex logistics networks of their own. So he decided it was a good idea to lunge his troops over the Ural mountains in late summer, with no connection to the rest of the Khanate. Cue winter, impassable snow in the Urals, and everyone running out of food. Batu muttered something about his granddad’s funeral and skedaddled as soon as the snow melted.

    3. This is not meant of a defense of Mr. Nitwit, but it is worth pointing out that Chinese-based states were clearly far wealthier and more powerful than anything in western Europe for pretty much the entire period from the putative fall of Rome until the early modern era. Colonialism’s emergence from Europe is very much not a product of Europe’s relative success in the 7th century (to pick an example when the contrast between Europe and China is quite extreme).

    4. Even if we don’t consider it a straight up fall, it’s not like Europe was wealthier or more advanced than China at that point. The age of exploration and scientific revolution were what really precipitated a massive snowballing technological advantage that eventually resulted in that crushing military superiority. It’s possible to argue that the seeds of this were already being planted, but that doesn’t require that there wasn’t a collapse – sometimes societies fall fast and recover even faster. Look how long it took Japan to go from closed medieval country to modern industrial imperial power.

      1. I think there is an argument that the age of exploration itself didn’t change that much: Europeans were in some ways militarily more successful, but not neccessarily *wealthier* until the Industrial Revolution Changed Everything.

      2. The Edo era was not really “medieval” in any meaningful sense. Edo was already a huge city, and Japan was very wealthy and literate for a non-industrialized nation. They also had been sort of keeping tabs on European advancements (rangaku) though unevenly. Iron ships were new (in the sense Japan could not make them) but guns were not. Japan was well prepared to make the leap, because they had an educated elite and knew they were up against more powerful countries. The samurai elite that sided with the “imperial restoration” faction became the new leaders, and they were backed up by an educated middle class (haiku and ukiyo-e were middle class arts).

        There was a lot of luck too, but it’s a lot like what China has done in the last 30 years. They knew what they didn’t know and so attacked those points aggressively. An example is what China squeezed from Apple – the articles that go into it make it clear Chinese authorities demanded technology transfers and explicitly setting up R&D in China in return for Apple’s involvement in China. The leadership in Japan, heck, the entire country down to country bumpkins moving into the cities, adopted western things aggressively.

    5. My understanding is that China had far greater scope for practicing colonialism in their own backyard – my language skills are very bad, but for example I understand the “Nam” of “Vietnam” to mean “southern” – the same word as begins “Nanjing”, yet the land north of Vietnam is now considered to be Chinese. Whatever culture had been there before has been Sinicized.

      Dr Devereaux contended at one point (EU4 part 4: Why Europe?) that whatever Afroeurasian society was the first to resolve the logistical barriers to putting an army in the New World was also very likely to conquer it. Europe was consistently at the cutting edge of seafaring technologies by necessity, thanks to the comparative fragmentation of the land relative to the great Indian and Chinese basins. (The Polynesians were notably even more successful, but had not the numbers.)

      Why would the Europeans make the trip? The answer I usually hear is about religiously-motivated closure of the overland trade route to the east, with the fall of Constantinople, but I’m not sure I buy that that one obstacle represents such a stark increase in the danger.

      There’s a clearer survey of the answers to “Why Europe?” on this blog at:

      I have no formal training in these matters, though, and would welcome being set right by one who knows better.

      1. > Why would the Europeans make the trip? The answer I usually hear is about religiously-motivated closure of the overland trade route to the east, with the fall of Constantinople, but I’m not sure I buy that that one obstacle represents such a stark increase in the danger.

        The answer I usually hear is that sea travel is faster and cheaper than land travel, especially if the land route is divided between multiple states (as it was after the fall of the Mongol Empire).

        1. I suspect there’s some truth to the “land route closing” factor, but it’s not just a matter of Constantinople falling, it’s the more general phenomenon.

          1) The Central Asian component of the land route fell into disarray as the Mongols fragmented and new factions sprung up.

          2) The Ottomans were a rising power that, by the late 1400s, sat across [i]most[/i] of the land routes from Europe to Asia, if not all of them.

          3) While the Mamelukes in Egypt theoretically let you do an end-run around the Ottomans up until the 1510s in some ways… The people who did most of the trading with the Mamelukes were the Venetians, as I recall. Importantly, Spain and Portugal weren’t friends in this situation. To Spain, Venice was competition against Spain’s own influence.

        2. AIUI Indian Ocean trade was much much more important than the land routes, as would make sense, but the Ottomans closing off access to that probably still works. Especially from the POV of Spain and Portugal.

          1. If nothing else, the budding conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean between the Venetians (et al.) and the Ottomans could have been disrupting trade patterns somewhat even before the Ottomans directly seized the key port locations in Egypt in the 1510s.

          2. The Ottomans did not close the trade routes – they (and Safavid Persia) fought the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean to prevent the Portuguese from closing the routes. They failed, and the Portuguese and subsequently Dutch and then British were able to forcibly redirect trade from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf to the Cape.

      2. Nan means south, but like, Nanjing was only “colonized” in the same sense that Greece was colonized by Rome

        1. Eh…. Not exactly. It’s a bit of a weird comparison because Nanjing postdates the colonization/migration period, which started at some point during the Han (though even then large parts of southern China was only in a very vague sense under chinese control) and accelerated during the instability of the following periods.

          It gets complicated because the demographics are often… patchy (still are, to some extents) with pre-han populations (like the ancestors of the Vietnamese before they were pushed south) often being pushed into the mountains. (the same is true, to an even greater extent, for the Yunnan area,.

    6. Europeans explored and ultimately colonized because there wasn’t much worth having in Europe.

      1. By say 1450, south-east England, the Netherlands and north Italy were comparable to coastal China in wealth, sophistication and technology. The decisive break came with the discovery of the Americas – but one you can reach the Cape of Good Hope the Americas become inevitable (the winds take you out near to Brazil).

      2. I think this statement could be much more sensibly stated as ‘everything “worth having” in Western Europe was becoming locked down by peer states’

        Given Columbuses known objective of navigating clear around the world to the East though, the trade theory provides a fairly clear impetus for the crowded-out western seafaring states to start seriously considering funding people like Jim’s harebrained expeditions around the world.

      3. “there wasn’t much worth having in europe”

        Wool, clockwork, wood (a massive constrain for the caliphates), high quality steel (sold down to africa) and banking invented by of all groups the knights templar.

        1. The real point is that Europe wanted things from the Far East: spices, silk, porcelain. Europe did not have much that the Far East wanted, certainly worth the hassle. Even in the 1500s, Europe’s main “export” was either silver stolen from the Americas, or outright piracy by the Portuguese.

    7. Obviously, if it does not emanate from Europe, it isn’t colonialism or imperialism.

      The Turks last attempt to conquer Central Europe, for example, was in 1683, more than thousand years after the Fall of Rome, and almost two centuries after Christopher Columbus sailed, but that doesn’t count as imperialism or colonialism because they weren’t coming from Europe. Quite the reverse, in fact.

      1. I think that an honest review of the literature in Europe regarding the Ottoman Empire, over the past several hundred years and including the present day, would suggest otherwise.

        There is no shortage of people prepared to speak at considerable length about the imperialism of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the populations directly conquered by them hold a grudge. Others don’t hold a grudge in large part because their territory went directly from being Ottoman colonial possessions to being British or French colonial possessions, so they just transferred their grudges to whichever empire had actually existed within living memory.

        In other words, plenty of people are prepared to call the Ottomans imperialist (or things worse than that), and plenty of the people who don’t are only doing so because someone else swooped in and redirected their attention to an entirely different set of oppressors.

        I don’t see either what your supporting evidence is for the sweeping claim you make about modern historiography, or what your point is in making the claim in the first place. What is the actual conclusion you are supporting with this assertion?

        1. Can’t speak for ad-numbers, whose username definitely doesn’t make them sound like a burner account, but… When I hear that sort of argument in the wild, it’s usually supporting (or at least adjacent to) the idea that SJWs are using historical revisionism to demonize Europe’s superior culture.
          And I get that sort of feeling from ad. “We don’t call Ottomans colonizers because they were minorities attacking whites instead of the other way around.”

        2. “I think that an honest review of the literature in Europe regarding the Ottoman Empire, over the past several hundred years and including the present day, would suggest otherwise.”

          Professional literature, maybe. Although I would very much appreciate if you could point out relevant literature where, say, the Balkan wars in the late 19th and early 20th century are discussed in the context of decolonization, ’cause I’m not aware of any. But in popular culture and contemporary politics, the Ottomans’ conquests are definitely NOT viewed as colonizing. Imperialist, maybe – although large parts of western popular culture and political though tend to see the Ottomans as too “barbaric” to be accepted as bona fide imperialists – but definitely not colonialist.

          A quick google search confirms that: searching for “decolonization of the Balkans” yields only a fraction of mostly obscure references compared to, say, decolonization of Africa.

          1. Apologies. To clarify, what I was getting at is that there is an ample tradition in Western literature and history of dwelling on the assorted cruelties, vices, oppressions, and torments inflicted on Christians and ‘the West’ by the Ottomans.*

            There is no shortage of that. It is not something “the West” has somehow forgotten any more than it’s forgotten dozens of other bits of imperial domination, and frankly less.

            I’m not so much thinking of professional literature in the modern day specifically analyzing the breakup of the Ottomans in the Balkans in the 19th century as “decolonization.”

            I’m addressing the broader point that there isn’t actually some kind of leftist ‘intellectual elite’ plot to make ‘the West’ effete and vulnerable to Islam by quietly memory-holing the VERY IMPORTANT fact that 150 years ago there was a Muslim government ruling over (GASP) a significant chunk of CHRISTIAN!!! Europe.

            Which is the insinuation I’m sensing from the post I was originally responding to.


            *(The assorted abuses are sometimes real, sometimes the product of Orientalizing imagination; the Ottomans could be nasty customers and I’m not denying it for a minute)

          2. Apologies. To clarify, what I was getting at is that there is an ample tradition in Western literature and history of dwelling on the assorted cruelties, vices, oppressions, and torments inflicted on Christians and ‘the West’ by the Ottomans.*

            In the Victorian period, maybe. In the last fifty years? Not so much.

          3. @Simon: Fair enough, and thank you for your reply. In my opinion, I must say I have a feeling you’re implying a bit more in ad’s post than there actually is. While he does raise the “double standard” grievance (which is overblown but, as multiple posters pointed out, not entirely without merit), I don’t see anything there that indicates a fear of a “third Ottoman invasion” or similar bull****. But that’s of course just a personal impression too.

        3. The people of the Balkans may remember Ottoman imperialism, but popular liberal Western culture does not. Ask yourself, how many times did Obama mention the Crusades (as something bad) versus how many times he mentioned the sack of Constantinople?

          1. Ask yourself, how many times did Obama mention the Crusades (as something bad) versus how many times he mentioned the sack of Constantinople?

            Or, indeed, the original Muslim Conquests, which occupied far more land far more permanently than anything the Crusaders managed.

          2. @ey81
            >The people of the Balkans may
            >remember Ottoman imperialism,
            >but popular liberal Western culture
            >does not. Ask yourself, how many
            >times did Obama mention the
            >Crusades (as something bad)
            >versus how many times he
            >mentioned the sack of Constantinople?

            Ask yourself, what diplomatic and strategic purposes was Obama trying to accomplish, and would those purposes have been in any way aided or fulfilled by ranting about either the Latin or the Ottoman capture of Constantinople?

            As a strictly practical matter, you can’t go back to Constantinople, because it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople.

            More seriously, it’s the capital of a major regional power in the Middle East, one the US has strong reasons to keep neutral or cooperative. It’s been a major Islamic capital for over twice the timespan the United States has existed for, since days that predate the Protestant Reformation, Columbus’ discovery of the New World.

            What would Obama have accomplished by fuming about that event, aside from randomly antagonizing Turkey? Well, he would certainly be throwing plenty of red meat to people obsessed with the ideology of an eternal “clash of civilizations” between “the West” and the Muslim world.

            Rather self-defeating of him, given that his actual goal was more to stabilize the situation in the Middle East by convincing Middle Eastern peoples and politicians that the US wasn’t a bunch of frothing lunatics with an ideological commitment to destroying them all and converting them away from their religion by force.

            An impression they could easily pick up from listening to the kind of person who unironically goes all “DEUS VULT” on the Internet, because gee, it turns out the Crusades aren’t just history to them. Far-right Western political thought continues to propagandize the idea that the Crusades were essentially and objectively correct and should be repeated only with greater force. As such, non-far-right Western political thinkers constantly face a need to persuade Muslim nations that no, the West is not about to commit to a revised set of Crusades, and that requires considerable effort because the West has bloodied its knuckles on Muslim faces quite a few times within living memory, as opposed to, y’know, back in the 1450s, 1570s, and 1660s.

            So I don’t see what the problem is. Unless, of course, your real complaint is that Obama wasn’t acting like a true, loyal son of the West because he didn’t throw red meat to the MOLON LABE DEUS VULT crowd by fanning their grievances, and instead tried to convince the Muslim nations he was doing diplomacy with that those guys aren’t running our foreign policy.

          3. Other than mindless Christian-bashing, what was Obama trying to accomplish by bringing up the Crusades? I know it’s an article of faith in some circles that he was a genius playing nine-dimensional chess while we lesser mortals wandered about in a daze, but to me he mostly came across as an utterly conventional hater. Your thoughts?

        4. I think that an honest review of the literature in Europe regarding the Ottoman Empire, over the past several hundred years and including the present day, would suggest otherwise.

          There are certainly people writing about the Ottoman Empire, although a comparison of the tone in which the Ottoman (really, any non-Western) Empire is talked about with the tone in which European imperialists are talked about makes it pretty clear that, at a visceral level, most people don’t really see the Ottoman Empire as the same kind of thing as European empires.

        5. I think that an honest review of the literature in Europe regarding the Ottoman Empire, over the past several hundred years and including the present day, would suggest otherwise.

          There are indeed people writing about the Ottoman Empire, although a comparison of the tone in which the Ottoman (really, any non-Western) Empire is written about vs. the tone in which European empires are written about makes it quite clear that, at an emotional, visceral level, many if not most of them don’t see the Ottoman Empire as the same kind of thing as European empires.

          1. Structurally, the Ottoman Empire was pretty different from, say, the British or French colonial empires.

            It was imperialist, but it wasn’t imperialist in the same ways, or using the same methods. Any more than ancient Rome was just like the British Empire.

            But again, it’s not like there is any shortage of people capable of saying, and willing to say, that Ottoman rule was bad.

          2. Structurally, the Ottoman Empire was pretty different from, say, the British or French colonial empires.

            Structurally, European colonial empires were pretty different from each other, or even from themselves (British rule in North America was very different to British rule in Africa, for example), but they all get portrayed as unremittingly evil and exploitative in a way that isn’t true of the Ottomans, or any other non-Western empire, for that matter.

            But again, it’s not like there is any shortage of people capable of saying, and willing to say, that Ottoman rule was bad.

            Like who?

          3. “Like who?”

            The Christchurch shooter for starters; but he didn’t spring, fully formed, from the foam of the Tasman Sea.

            In some sense your ignorance of modern bigotry does you credit, but it is ignorance.

          4. The Christchurch shooter for starters; but he didn’t spring, fully formed, from the foam of the Tasman Sea.

            If he’s the only example you can think of, that kind of proves ad-numbers’ point about double standards.

        6. “I think that an honest review of the literature in Europe regarding the Ottoman Empire, over the past several hundred years and including the present day, would suggest otherwise.”

          Perhaps, but all the books and articles I have read that referred to a colonial empire were talking about regions outside Europe being ruled by modern-era Europeans.

          I have never seen an empire in ancient times referred to as a colonial empire.

          I have never seen a non-European empire ruling non-Europeans referred to as a colonial empire.

          I have never seen a non-European empire ruling Europeans referred to as a colonial empire.

          I have never seen a European empire ruling Europeans referred to as a colonial empire.

          But every modern-era European empire ruling non-Europeans I have seen referred to as a colonial empire.

          Memory may have played me false, and I may have forgotten an occasional counterexample, but there does seem to be a very strong trend here.

          Zaealix was wondering why “the whole colonialism thing” seems to have emanated from Europe. The most obvious answer is that if it doesn’t come from Europe, we don’t call it colonialism. It’s like asking why there are no hurricanes in the Indian Ocean – if it’s in the Indian Ocean, we don’t call it a hurricane.

          1. I’m not sure how logically rigorous this is, but it seems to me that “imperialism” mostly refers to conquests of peoples who are near-peers in development and so simply need to be politically assimilated and their output taxed towards the greater empire. While “colonialism” refers to situations in which the conquered peoples are backwards enough compared to the conquerors that the conquerors have to introduce their system to the newly conquered territories. This can be either farmers displacing or enslaving hunter-gatherers, or industrialized nations seizing control of agricultural societies in order to put mechanized forms of resource extraction in place. So in the former the conquered become subjects, while in the latter the conquered are either reduced to some form of serfdom, enslaved, or exterminated. E.g. imperialism is Roman farmers conquering Gaulish farmers, or Imperial Germany assimilating Alsace-Lorraine and parts of what used to be Poland. Colonialism is English settlers driving out Indians from North America, or Britain building railroads through Africa. We’re more familiar with “colonialism” in this sense because major examples of it are more recent.

          2. So in the former the conquered become subjects, while in the latter the conquered are either reduced to some form of serfdom, enslaved, or exterminated. E.g. imperialism is Roman farmers conquering Gaulish farmers, or Imperial Germany assimilating Alsace-Lorraine and parts of what used to be Poland. Colonialism is English settlers driving out Indians from North America, or Britain building railroads through Africa.

            I’m not sure this distinction maps how the terms are used in real life — e.g., Spartan rule over the Helots doesn’t normally get described as “colonialism” whereas British rule in India does, despite the fact that the Helots’ situation was far more serf-y and slave-y than that of the average subject of British India. And Britain building railways in Africa doesn’t seem qualitatively different to Rome or Achaemenid Persia building roads through their respective empires.

            Rather, I think most people use “colonialism” to mean, basically, “imperialism conducted on the other side of a big body of water”. So European states taking control of Chinese ports for trading purposes counts as “colonialism” because Europe is several oceans away, whereas China ethnically cleansing a neighbouring province and flooding the region with Han colonists doesn’t, because they don’t have to cross any seas to get there. British settlement in North America pre-1776 gets described as colonialism because Britain is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean; the descendants of these same people (or, sometimes, the exact same people) doing the same thing post-1776 generally gets described as either “settlement” or “imperialism” (depending on how far you approve or disapprove), because the USA is already in North America so their settlers don’t have to sail anywhere to reach the frontier. The British taking over India through a combination of direct rule and co-opting local elites and using their power to enrich themselves is colonialism because India is a long way from Britain, but pretty much any ancient empire doing the same is imperialism, because they generally only conquered lands which were (relatively) close by. Etc.

            And so the answer to why the “colonialism” label only gets applied to Europeans is that the period in which naval technology got advanced enough to move large bodies of men across big stretches of water coincided with the period in which Europe was pulling ahead of the rest of the world in terms of wealth and general technology, meaning that Europeans were pretty much the only ones able to do colonialism. The rest of the world had to be content with old-fashioned imperialism.

          3. Another point for GJ’s point: Russia’s rule over northern Asia doesn’t get called colonialism, even though it’s a European power ruling outside of Europe.

          4. I understand that Russians of the time called their conquest of Asian territories “internal colonization” because having colonies was the thing to do and they wanted to be like the other empires.

          5. For that matter, British rule in Ireland (across a sea, but a small one — you can see the Scottish coast from parts of Northern Ireland) isn’t generally described as colonialism, even though it shared many features with European rule in other continents.

    8. It isn’t like Europe was unique in having regressive periods. China was very badly hurt by the Mongol invasions, and India and the Islamic world had their ups and downs. Really you have to compare Europe to the rest of the world c. 1450 rather than c. 450.
      Also, I like Paul Kennedy’s argument in “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” that basically Europe was too fragmented (despite the best efforts of the Church and the Hapsburgs) for any central authority with a vested interest in the status quo to successfully stifle change and innovation. Certainly the printing press took off rapidly upon its introduction, with a resulting knowledge explosion in shipbuilding, mapmaking, navigation, cannon and firearms, and other prerequisites for the European oceanic age to begin.

      1. Do you have clear evidence that the Chinese, Mughals, and other major powers of this general time period were “successfully stifling change and innovation?” Use of the word “successful” implies that preventing change and innovation was a matter of formal state policy.

        Was there a centralized policy in any of the major gunpowder-era empires of suppressing printing or preventing innovation in ship design, artillery design, metalworking, navigation, and other ‘killer app’ technologies that Europe was able to exploit in the late 1700s and later?

        1. Kennedy devotes a whole chapter of his book to comparing Europe, Islam, India and China c. 1500. Long story short yes, there were significant state-policy obstacles to many forms of innovation. Most notoriously China’s retrenchment from naval exploration and trade after 1470. Even Europe had temporary local enactments against many innovations, but was pluralistic enough that innovators could find a refuge somewhere.

        2. The ultimate examples of centralized retranchment arise in China and Japan. In China they abandoned oceanic exploration because of a change in political powers of court cliques. And Japan after the consolidation of the Tokugawa Shogunate in order to deny rival Daimyio access to resources necessary to challenge the central government.

          And in Europe the fragmentations led states that resisted social and technical change, and the resulting political instability, were often eclipsed by their neighbors and rarely recovered. With the Moscovite state being the notable exception where change was often driven by individual autocrats who admired changes and development in Western Europe.

          1. AIUI a lot of the “abandonment” was less isolationism for the sake of it and more an attempt to make trade a state monopoly. Which is bad policy, but instead of being “exotic Oriental insularism” is just a version of royal monopoly and mercantilism, familiar to any student of European history. Note that Japan was never actually entirely closed off, but limited trade to a few ports.

            As for exploration, Europe didn’t start out seeking to explore the unknown. Even when it stumbled upon the Americas, exploration was more “where’s gold?” than “so, what have we found here?” Applying the same motivations to China… once again, they did not have the material reason to seek out Europe that Europe had for seeking out China. Zheng He’s ships scoped out more of China’s world than Europe had of its world at the same time. But it was all part of a healthy trade network; little need for China to keep sending out expensive ‘show the flag’ fleets.

          2. Both can be exaggerated. Chinese ‘exploration’ were imperial fleets sent to known parts to show the flag and exact (often nominal) obedience. Chinese commerce and migration continued – eg a lot of Chinese settled in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia in the period. Japan’s great rival was Ming/Manchu China. and it kept an eye on developments there, in Korea and further afield by an active diplomacy through intermediaries. The high point of Chinese expansion was in the 1700s.

        3. One of the history books by Bernard Lewis has the history of the printing press in the Ottoman Empire. It was frequently banned, usually regarded with suspicion, and in consequence there were very few printing presses, and thus books, in the Ottoman Empire for centuries.

          The ‘fragmentation’ argument is that Europe also had rulers with a centralised policy of banning innovation BUT they couldn’t suppress new ideas on a sufficiently large scale, because innovators could easily move to another country / state.

          So if you are a 15th or 16th C wanna-be printer in Europe, you do need some financial backing and the approval, or at least tolerance, of some important people. But if say the French court won’t back you, you can try a German state, or the Netherlands, or England, without going very far.

          If you’re a wanna-be printer in the Ottoman Empire and the Sultanate says no, what are you going to do? Your ‘nearest’ alternative is, hmmm, Safavid Persia? (Actually, your nearest alternative is probably Europe!)

          A similar argument for ship building. Chris Columbus could try out his crazy plan on various southern European city states and kingdoms until he found someone rich and optimistic / gullible enough to back him.

          Ming China was probably as rich as all of Europe combined, and had plenty of coastline and ports and sailors. But once Zheng He and his long distance fleet got shut down by the court, what could any wanna-be explorers do? Korea was too small to risk annoying the Chinese. The Japanese were at the time too busy fighting each other.

          Scientific and technological development seems to follow a compound interest curve, or even exponential. A small head start for Europe in the 15th/16th C became a huge lead by the 19th C, when historians started noticing that they’d conquered the world and wondering why.

          1. The Chinese, Koreans and Japanese all toyed with the idea of state control over maritime commerce. They moved from laysser fair mentality (Song, Yuan) to state sponsored commerce (Zheng He) to full prohibition (afterwards). Jpan had free trade, followed by state support with the Red Seal ships which were out-of-touch for any war vessel in the Pacific, to full prohibition. Korea had almost the same trajectory.
            The issue was that maritime commerce created huge wealth which could trigger political problems. The European states moved directy to support and control the wealth creation because they had liitle taxation power. The Asian ones had huge taxation power at home and were leary to get involved in far away conflicts (see the Mongol fleets in Java, Vitenam or Zheng He in Java). So they prefered to stop this movement of wealth when done by private groups and channel it into the tributary fleets.

    9. Confucian thought considers merchants as parasites and middlemen, leeching off people who actually do produce the goods, such as farmers and artisans.

      David Graeber touches on this in “Debt: the first 5000 years” and makes a distinction between money as a means of exchange and markets. Markets don’t spontaneously sprout on their own. Typically you also need to coerce people into paying taxes. Graeber argues there’s a strong link between emergence of markets and military conquests. A functioning market greatly eases the logistic burden of supplying an army. You no longer need to take grain directly from farmers and redistribute it to soldiers, for example. Once you get a market going, it’s the common people that start worrying how to sell their produce and pay taxes. Graeber also called the Roman Empire a machine for extracting precious materials from conquered populations and redistributing them among soldiers. He says this is the mechanism that produced currency.

      So perhaps it went a lot deeper than “Europe didn’t have anything worth having”. Perhaps the China didn’t consider *markets* worth having. If you treat Confucius seriously, you don’t see the point of exploring so you can establish trade.

      Besides, the Chinese had most of the continents already mapped. Zheng He’s massive fleets were sent out as a display of power.

      1. They looked down on merchants, but that hardly means they didn’t have any. China had plenty of war, plenty of soldiers, and plenty of merchants.

      2. Did European Christendom circa 500-1500 CE not treat merchants as a lowly and somewhat parasitic class?

        Because if Confucians did this, but so did everyone else, then this isn’t an explanation for a lack of Chinese “takeoff” relative to Europe in the Early Modern period, any more than the inability of Chinese people to walk on water explains their so-called “stagnation.”

        1. Crone in _Pre-Industrial Societies_ would say the difference was that medieval Europe failed to achieve a stable system typical of such societies, for an unusually long time, so that merchant-led disruption was able to survive and squeeze through cracks not present in China or Mideast societies.

          As for 1500 CE, try the 1800s, and the disdain of English gentry for being in ‘trade’… the agrarian-aristocratic disdain for merchants is very widespread and robust.

          For that matter, never mind 500 CE, consider the *Roman* attitude toward merchants. Senators weren’t allowed to be in trade, or own big ships, or IIRC even leave Italy without permission. I see overlap with the Brahmin caste of India…

        2. Not to the same degree as China. To take one example, most international trade involving China was carried out under the guise of tribute missions, whereas European merchants could just go and openly buy things from other countries, even if the feudal aristocracy looked down on them for it.

      3. Confucian thought considers merchants as parasites and middlemen, leeching off people who actually do produce the goods, such as farmers and artisans.

        Welcome to the blog! Devereaux noted the exact same attitude among people from Europe and the Mediterranean region in…I think it was the third part of the “How they made it: Bread” series? Whichever part talked about markets.

      4. In 1980s, when the various East Asian countries and regions began to boom in GDP and trade – notably Taiwan, S. Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, known as “Four Asian Tigers” – Confucianism had been used to explain the success of them, because “Confucianism valued stability, discipline, and industriousness.”

        Meanwhile, Confucianism had *also* been used to explain why East Asian countries were backwaters of global economy from 1800s and before 1980s and did not develop a socially-well-received merchant class, because “Confucianism thoughts discourage commercial activities and looked down upon merchants.”

        So… which type of Confucianism is “historically accurate,” the “pro-work” one or the “anti-commerce” one?

        The point being, Confucianism was not a religion per se (more like a stepping stone for higher social status and/or political power), nor did it have an overarching influence on every corner of Chinese society (the majority of pre-modern Chinese commoners followed Buddhism, or Daoism, or various popular religions). Trying to use an abstract “Confucianism” to explain the whole stretch of Chinese intellectual history or history of thoughts is no more than an oversimplification.

        1. A recent tweet noted that the only countries with really good responses to covid have been in the vague region of East Asia. Many replies attributed this to Confucianism and cultural conformity. None replied when I asked how that applied to Australia and New Zealand.

          Relatedly, my impression from recent reading is that “East Asians wear masks” only became generally true after 2002 SARS, helped by mid-2000s dust storms and rising pollution.

          ““Generally speaking, Koreans until recently believed that mask wearing was a sort of ‘Japanese practice,’ not ours,” he said.”

        2. Well, international trade in East Asia was certainly far more restricted during the early modern period (and possibly earlier, but I don’t know enough to comment) than in Europe. I’m not sure we can definitively prove that this was due to Confucianism as opposed to some other cultural or political trait, but it is easier to square the restrictions on trade with the theory that Confucianism is anti-commerce than with the theory that Confucianism is pro-commerce.

        3. Rather than Confucianism, it’s easier to ascribe the commercial success of Chinese _outside_ China to their being members of what Thomas Sowell called “middlemen minorities”: expatriates who perforce by necessity cultivated the habits that led, sometimes over generations, to a comfortable if occasionally precarious middle-class existence. Often when the prevailing culture surrounding those transplants was so hostile to trade and commerce as to leave the middlemen minorities with a de facto monopoly on business.

    10. In every war, the winner wins, the loser loses, and…the guy that hosted the war, owned the battlefields and so on, also loses. The Europeans developed a technology that allowed them to keep all of the fighting on other peoples’ land, and eventually that advantage overcame every one of their extremely long list of disadvantages.
      As for ‘why not China?’ the answer seems to be that “people in other places have things worth stealing” was a universal wisdom in Europe and a laughable delusion in China, which does sort of argue that there was a collapse of some kind in Europe that eventually led to things.

    11. Assuming colonialism emanated from Europe is kind of a teleological view in my opinion. Every human polity has imperial ambitions. Empires are great because you get all the money and the poor guy who’s land you took over now has none and works for you. Colonialism just takes this idea and sails with it, spreading the ambitions of empire across the globe at cannon point. It doesn’t really change the formula, however, beyond adding systemic racism. China is arguably the first to try overseas colonialism, what with their grand treasure fleets, but the Europeans became the masters of it early on.

      Why the Europeans succeeded at becoming a colonial power is a complicated question. Europe had just undergone two major technological revolutions, the rise of international markets/finance and the development of gunpowder weaponry, so they were ideally placed to fund large ocean spanning expeditions and to win wars when they got there. However, China was not too dissimilar and clearly had both the military power and technical know how to pursue similar goals, so why the different outcomes? Well the political fragmentation of Europe helped, the Chinese state was able to put the breaks on their own ambition, but I think geography matters more in the grand scheme of things.

      Once the age of navigation began the Europeans could reach the Americas and the African coast in a couple months of hard sailing. These lands were in the Stone Age and Iron Age respectively, and neither were in much place to resist militarily. Thus they were pretty easy to exploit and bring into the European economic orbit. Africa wasn’t strictly conquered until the railroad allowed for access to the interior, but the Europeans more or less had the product of two continents fall into their laps right out of the gate. Sure they were more interested in the spices at the time, but I don’t think I can express how important these wins were to the take off of the European Renaissance. Spain basically became the superpower of Europe purely because they sent a couple thousand guys to South America one time. The rewards Europe reaped from their trade were huge and just kept growing.

      However, across the globe colonial ambitions in China got off to a far worse start. Looking at a map it’s easy to see why, a few months sailing from China gave access to Indochina, which they already had as an imperial possession, India, which was a peer competitor and so not a target, and Indonesia which was already in their economic orbit and unconquerable. (If you want to know why, go read about the WWII island campaigns. The terrain is murder and the entire microbiome is trying to kill you). They had no hope reaching America and never pursued East-Africa. It was on the other side of India so who knows if they could have actually controlled it even if they’d made the attempt. About the only significant piece of land they could have reached was Australia and that is barely habitable at their level of technological development,

      Basically, China was just in the wrong place to exploit the two easy wins of colonialism, America and Africa. So they didn’t bother becoming a colonial power and the Europeans did. Later, after the industrial revolution kicked off and India in a surprise upset fell into the British orbit, they would final the winners of colonialism knocking at their door but by then it was a very different game. One the Europeans had been winning for centuries.

      1. I think this is mostly right but I have a quibble.

        First, everyone the Portuguese encountered in mainland Africa between roughly the Maghreb and the Tropic of Cancer was at contact a peer state; even Kongo had reached a post Iron Age level of development by the time the Viking Age started in Europe.

  8. Great piece as always! As a former Art History student myself I was blown away by your use of Anime as an accessible example of stylization as distinct from quality. I am going to use the heck out of that!

    1. As an art history student surely you can see the clear limitations of using Anime as an example in this context? The idea that anime is only stylization with no attempt to engage the principles of realistic art seems so contrary to reality I almost don’t know how to approach this. If anything a lot of Anime clearly goes for a much higher level of realism than most Western animation, all you need to do is look at something like Cowboy Bebop, or Ghost in the Shell.

      I don’t mean to come across as weeb, but I don’t think people are unable to swallow the idea that stylization plays a huge role in art, most art that you see in broad society in this day and age is clearly highly stylized from almost any Disney movie to that insanely overused Alegria style that seems to have become the default for any large corporation on the internet. Its more that I think its unclear to people whether or not somebody from 9th century in Europe was capable of reaching a high level of realistic art if they wanted to do so, certainly I feel like when I studied art their was a lot about the slow development of realistic perspective (for sake of an example) in the late middle ages that made it seem like this was a difficult process that required a large amount of institutional knowldege.

  9. Something I’ve heard that sounds well is that the Vandals setting themselves up as Romanized Military Aristocrats in North Africa blocked an economic beating heart, turning a body into a corpse. Everything was still there, but a body can do things and a corpse rots.

    1. Your analogy is quite interesting, although I would not put it so strongly. In the latter days of the Western Empire, North Africa served as a granary for Italy and Rome in particular. So when the Vandals took over in the province, the grain tributes that had supplied the centre stopped: the Vandals weren’t going to give free produce to what now was a foreign state. You can imagine what an impact this had on the population of Rome. The end of Rome as a metropolis can to a large extent be attributed to this.
      For Africa on the other hand, the disappearance of these imperial tributary flows did not mean that the economy collapsed. It is the bureaucracy that disappeared slowly over time. It markedly declined throughout the Vandal period, but this (I think at least) has more to do with the fact that Africa was still a very wealthy province. The Vandal kings and aristocrats were some of the richest of their time and the Roman administration had mainly existed to organise the ‘export’ of grain and taxes to Rome before the Vandal period. It was just not efficient for the Vandal elite to invest in maintaining a bureaucracy when they could just extract their wealth as landowners, so this system slowly atrophied over time.
      Another question is of course what effect this had on the local population. We don’t know very much about them sadly, but the decline in surplus extraction might have well been something positive for them. It meant that they had to pay less taxes and keep more for themselves. It is not like they received much back from the state in exchange for their taxes and tributes.
      So in short, I think the loss of Africa to the Vandals was more of a problem for Rome than it was for the local population. But I’m sure this question of regional interdependency and its role in the end of the Western Empire is something that will be addressed more in the coming post about economics.

  10. I just wanted to say that I was never much into reading about history until I came across your blog; I realized that what turned me off of most history was its focus on the actions of individuals, usually devoid of the context of the society in which they took those actions. (The “names and dates” approach to history.) Understanding how a civilization was structured, what its people did, what their motivations were (based on the social and economic environment they lived in), and how day-to-day life worked is far more illuminating to me than any biography could ever be.

    1. Yeah, academic history has tried to stay away from “name and date” history for a long time now. It has it’s share of problems as well however but this blog does a good job of avoiding them. I haven’t found too much else that scratches the same itch which is why I like this blog so much.

      The closest thing I’ve found to what you like about this book is the Tides of History podcast. The host has a PhD in late imperial Rome and hits that well and his pre-history episodes are also solid. However, he doesn’t “steelman” in the same way as this blog and he often tells people about ideas he disagrees with without mentioning any of the reasons why people hold those ideas (for example he argues that the Huns were successful because of administrative systems and institutions rather than military prowess without even mentioning stirrups). Still, good stuff.

    2. Amusingly the norm for history as a study is away from that names & dates style. If you look at for example Bernadette Banner’s youtube, she is very much focused on some very microscopic historical issues, but it isn’t a question of “who was the most important big shot of the age” but of “how unpleasant was it to style your hair like this” and “how hard would it be to make this dress.” It’s a bit frustrating that history (like many other studies e.g. math) is introduced in such a backwards, offputting way and the fun stuff only really kicks off when you’re pretty advanced.

      1. I felt the same way and so I started a blog which looks at the medieval era with this view (very much inspired by the way ACOUP does things). As I don’t want to be self-publicising
        too much, I’m not sure if it is OK to post the link here. But if there’s interest, feel free to let me know.

  11. My own (very much amateur) understanding of the subject is that there was a whole lot of Decline and Fall going on in what had been the WRE, especially from an economic and demographic POV, but that a lot of it happened quite a lot later than 476.

    Stuff like:
    -The Plague of Justinian
    -The incredibly destructive Byzantine-Lombard wars.
    -Cooling climate.
    -Old Roman administrative systems that survived the end of the WRE falling apart later on.
    -Arab expansion making trade across the Mediterranean harder. Remember reading a history of Sub-Roman Britain that emphasized how amphora from the ERE continued to show up in Britain until tue Arab expansion, after ehich they stopped.
    -The depopulation of many cities was gradual but by the end of Late Antiquity was quite profound.

    So a real Decline and Fall, just one that took quite a while.

    1. Britain also, as dr. Devereaux noted, is especially hit hard by the dissolution of the empire, being ejected earlier then the other parts and having evidence of a large scale collapse.

      But even then, it isn’t as stark as some think, or as stark as hinted at here with all the angle saxon, and jute caveats. Guy Halsell (in his book Worlds of Arthur ((the title is clickbait.))) actually opines that the saxon takeover happened similar to the rest of the empire, with saxon foederati and other mercenaries, mostly in the north, replacing the withdrawn roman armies and administrators and then pulling more of their fellows into britain. And just ethnically, there is no hard break between the population of roman britain and saxon britain. It’s all largely the same people genetically. There’s no vast replacement.

      Just, when we say Dark Ages, you don’t get much darker then Britain. We have all of one contemporary textual source for the period of immediate post fall (gildas), and other sources don’t pick up til centuries later, often injecting myth into a mysterious period.

      1. Hence Arthurian legend… the period we have the least on is the source of a good bit of medieval romance.

      2. There’s some interesting argument that what made Britain interesting was that unlike the others where roman state-structures remained as the basis for post-roman socities in some sense, in Britain the roman state structures collapsed entirely, and wasn’t even replaced by a conquering polity. At most you see very small micro-polities for a while before they start coalescing into larger polities.

  12. I think medievalist orthodoxy is a bit more sophisticated than you give us credit for: If you look at Chris Wickham’s Inheritance of Rome (one of the main surveys on the Early Middle Ages), his chapter on this period is pretty balanced and he even cites Ward-Perkins’s book as a needed correction against “excessive continuitism” (p.572).

    Well done though, overall! This is really valuable and I look forward to teaching it sometime.

  13. The book I rely on for a framework to understand this material is Christopher Wickham’s “The Inheritance of Rome”. What part of the debate would my perspective be looking out from?

  14. Good start. I’m an early modernist by training (though I never actually worked as a historian) so perhaps by proximity I am slightly more inclined towards the “change and continuity” school, but one of the things that tends to be most difficult in these kinds of issues is teasing apart the *consequences* of an event from the *causes*. (the problems of which I expect you to get into) (also, from a scandinavian POV the entire period is fairly different, and much more obscure, of course)

    So for instance, is the lack in agricultural productivity a result of the breakdown of roman state functions? Or is it a cause of them? Does economic activity decline becuase the roman state collapses or the reverse? Etc. In some matters it’s obvious that factions aren’t exactly caused by the roman state collapse (unless there is a “romans caused global cooling theory somewhere, which I am sure there is…)

    Other than chinese, wouldn’t the other literary tradition be that of India? It starts later than the graeco-roman tradition but overlaps it significantly and keeps going to some extent. (though the preserved works are extensively religious, and we don’t get the narrative histories we get in the graeco-roman and chinese traditions)

  15. > Alaric was not some wild-eyed barbarian freshly piled over the frontier

    But did he at least habitually dress in a lot of rough fur pelts?

  16. Some comments:

    1) Parchment seems to have taken over from the papyrus scroll in the 3rd and 4th century. While papyrus may have continued to be popular in Egypt, I don’t think there is a great deal of relevance in the papyrus-to-parchment bottleneck in a discussion of the post-“fall” Latin West. It’s difficult to imagine there was a significant body of literature that by the 500s still only existed in scroll form that had been superseded for centuries.

    2) I would have liked to have read more on the key change in book copying in Late Antiquity, the change from the traditional Roman curriculum to a Christian one. Aristocratic Roman families such as the Symmachi were diligent copyists and editors of secular classical texts for education as well as edification well into the 5th century. Then suddenly it stopped: after them all copying went through the monasteries. Maybe this will be covered in the post about social institutions, but it’s an absolutely key factor in what literature survived and why.

    3) My copy of Wilson and Reynolds’ Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature gives an account of what manuscripts we have from the post-“fall” period as follows:

    “Although few ages are so dark that they are not penetrated by a few shafts of light, the period from roughly 550 to 750 was one of almost unrelieved gloom for the Latin classics on the continent; they virtually ceased being copied. Among the mass of patristic, biblical, and liturgical manuscripts that survive from this period there are precious few texts of classical authors: from the sixth century we have scraps of two Juvenal manuscripts, remnants of one of the Elder and one of the Younger Pliny, but at least two of these belong to the early part of the century; from the seventh century we have a fragment of Lucan; from the early eighth century nothing.”

    Yes, the monasteries did preserve classical learning. But this was not happening in most of the former Western Empire in the immediate centuries after, but in Ireland and Scotland, and was brought to the continent during the Carolingian Renaissance after a long hiatus. What we *do* have from the 7th century on the continent is a LOT of palimpsests: monks of the period were more engaged in scrubbing the ink off parchment that contained pagan authors for use to copy Christian texts, than in copying virtually any of them.

    1. It’s some time since I read Wilson & Reynolds, a fantastic book! I don’t remember the whole argument, but surely it is relevant that for quite some time after the end of the Senatorial and public libraries, copies of the secular manuscripts were still available. Indeed copies of the Aeneid at least must initially have been abundant, and for the reduced population and the very much reduced literate population of the 7th century, the need to copy such manuscripts (for teaching good Latin) may not have been felt to be so pressing compared to other needs.

      Bret says parchment can store well for over a 1000 years, but of course that is only the case in dry, rodent-free conditions. Once a library is not supported anymore by a patron with enough liquidity, even parchment will decay.

      The bottleneck was the 8th century because by then the old manuscripts, even on parchment, had thoroughly decayed and needed to be copied or else be lost.

  17. “Odoacer offered to submit to the authority of the Roman Emperor in the West, though one doubts his real sincerity”

    Did you mean to say he offered to submit to the authority of the Roman Emperor in the East?

  18. One of my favourite bits of weirdness in late antiquity is all the figures that end up as legendary or end up in sagas and such. Like Attila and the burgundians in the nibelungen/volsungasaga, or how king Theoderic the Great becomes a german knight who fights necromancers in some of the medieval romances…

    1. One reason why the Matter of Britain predominated over the Matter of France as time went on — even in France — was that there were people descended from Charlemagne and other historical figures in the medieval romances, and others who claimed descent from other figures (historical or completely fictional). Much safer with King Arthur, because everyone knew he left no more descendants than Hector.

      (Other things helped. The Matter of Britain was the love story one, and the ladies liked it, for instance.)

  19. If you want a scholar (albeit a literary one) who embraces the nitwit view, Stephen Greenblatt is not too far off.

  20. First impressions on the header “Two Knights an Old Man and a Nitwit” was “which Tetrarchy does this refer to?”

    My personal pick is Severus II for the nitwit, but Constantine is the only plausible equestrian among his contemporaries 🙁

  21. Aha, I wish this post had come a week earlier – I’ve just had a uni lecture about Roman sculpture, and we discussed the Augustus of Prima Porta! Similar to Plutarch’s writings about Cleopatra, a lot of Roman art and literature seems to have been created for propaganda purposes; badmouthing their rivals and bolstering their own image. Perhaps this moulding of their own image explains why they endured and prospered for so long?

  22. Incredibly nitpicky of me but I feel you are remiss when you say that Mediterranean literature is the longest tradition “alongside Chinese” of transmission (which has a credible claim to being substantially older) without mentioning Tamil, which has not only a very long line of transmission but is also just still living! Not of great substance to your arguments, rather a pedantic point, but what are we here for if not such pedantic points?

    1. My understanding is that the Tolkappiyam is the oldest surviving work in Tamil, it’s dates are substantially uncertain but range from the last two centuries BC or the first few (possibly 7 or 8) centuries AD. The oldest complete Greek work is the Iliad, c. 750 and the oldest complete Latin work are the plays of Plautus, 205. We know of Latin writers who survive in fragments as early as the 270s. The Torah’s final composition probably dates to the fifth or fourth century BC, with its oldest elements perhaps reaching back perhaps to the 7th century. For Chinese literature, my understanding is that the oldest surviving works trace back at least as far as the Eastern Zhou (770-256), which puts them at least as far back as the Iliad, if not further.

      Thus while Tamil literature is clearly very old, it seems to me that the Mediterranean and Chinese traditions (the former taken together) are somewhat older – its hardly a huge difference, but we are being pointedly pedantic here. And of course Greek and Hebrew are still active languages, as is Chinese and there are still works produced in Latin as well (e.g. papal bulls).

      1. Some pedantry on the Tanakhic tradition:

        1. The Torah is just one section of the Tanakh, itself an acronym (TaNa”Kh) for Torah, Nevi’im (prophets), and Ketuvim (writings). While the five books of the Torah are traditionally separated out from the prophets, that is a post facto separation. Most notably, Deuteronomy (part of the Torah) shares more fragmentary sources and redaction history with Samuel and Kings (in the prophets section) than with its fellow Torah books of Leviticus and Numbers.

        2. While your dating is right for the collection as a whole, there are a couple of fragments that may date back quite a bit earlier than your no-earlier-than date of the 7th century BCE. The Song of the Sea, most notably, is centuries older than the unrelated Exodus narrative that it has been shoehorned into, and I’ve seen professionals throw around dates as early as the 9th-8th century BCE. Dating is a very rough art here – most progress has come from trying to match up its mythology to Canaanite sources with archaeologically-verified dates. There we face the problem both of paucity of good sources like the Ugarit finds, and the problem of sorting out diachronic changes in broader Canaanite mythology from 900-400BCE from synchronic Judahite/Israelite twists on the broadly-known stories.

        1. The Priestly Blessing found in Numbers is also *old*. The Ketef Hinnom finds demonstrate that in an unambiguous fashion. Although it’s always made me wonder just who exactly inscribes something like that on a chunk of silver.

      2. If we’re talking Indian literature on the whole, the Vedas are certainly very old, like 1500 BCE for the oldest. The situation is a little more complex, though, as from what I understand the Vedas were transmitted orally, through special training that preserved Sanskrit as a sort of liturgical language. They are often considered some of the oldest “texts” though actually writing them down is a more modern habit.

        1. I believe the common theory is that post-Indus writing didn’t really get to India until the Achamenid period. (indian scripts seem to be derived from aramaic in some fashion, though greatly altered)

  23. I may be giving credit where it is not due, but I suspect the “Christian Dark Ages” thing might be phrased like that because they’ve head that there was no “Islamic Dark Age” dontchaknow.

      1. Some people do feel that the destruction of Caliphal Baghdad by the Mongols is an event that the world has still not fully recovered from.

    1. I did a little digging – it looks like The Chart came out of the internet atheist movement about 15 years ago. So it’s called the Christian Dark Ages because they’re specifically blaming religion and its opposition to science for the Dark Ages.

  24. I wonder how recently the old man retired from dueling. The impression I get from talking with earlier generations is that the Gibbon-style folk history of Rome was alive & well until fairly recently. Gibbon’s idea that Christianity weakened Roman resolve to rule with the needed iron fist seems to have been accepted popular history as late as the 1950s & 60s – for one geeky example, the Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses” is a what-if for alternate history Earth where successful Roman suppression of Christianity meant that the Empire survived up to 20th century technology.

  25. Somewhat tangential, but under ideal conditions (i.e. Egypt) just how long could a papyrus scroll stay *in use*? My general impression is that even sturdier materials tend to decay fairly fast if used regularly and not handled with great care, but I’m not sure how a dry climate would help with this.

  26. I notice that you use the word “barbarians” quite a bit, although the use of quotation marks suggests that you don’t think it’s ideal. Are you using it only for convenience, or do you think it does represent a useful category?

    1. Convenience, to avoid having to say, “Goths, Vandals, Franks, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Suebi, Burgundians, Alamanni and other related groups” about a hundred times. Or the clunky alternative ‘Germanic-language speakers.’

      1. Amusingly, in Spanish we just call all those groups “germanos” (Germans). There’s no room for confusion with modern Germans, because those would be “alemanes” (after the Alemanni). Therefore this situation is clearly the fault of English-speakers for giving such a generic name to the nationality and country—might as well call Russia “Slavia” and Ireland “Celtica” 😀

        1. There is a problem that “germanic” really only works as a linguistic group, and largely a post-hoc construction at that. The goths and the franks dont really have much in common except some linguistic things.

  27. Fun fact: Christians loved the codex. As in, archeological digs find libraries where 90+% of the pagan writings are scrolls, and 90+% of the Christian writings are codices.

  28. You mention a couple of times that “Britain has an unusual and rather more traumatic path through this period than much of the rest of Roman Europe”.

    So I wonder: could Gibbon’s tendency toward the “decline and fall” thesis be related to the fact of his Britishness? Does a focus on or awareness of the Romano-British case emphasize the catastrophic perspective? Or do continental sources from the period tend to take the same approach?

  29. One can over-state continuity. The late Western Empire counted 60 provinces. Of these 18 fell out of the Roman cultural orbit enough for the language to be replaced (which suggests substantial in-migration – whether before or after the collapse of imperial authority) – and that does not count later losses to Slavs and Muslims. One could also note that mid-imperial Roman practice had been to take in newcomers on Roman terms: a draft of young men would be conscripted into the auxiliaries and sent to some far-off place, while the families would be parcelled out according to imperial need. By late Roman times the balance of power had shifted enough that applicants could demand better terms – including insisting on staying together under their own leaders.

  30. Did the Romans have a history of intentionally peopling their lands with foreigners? I know that such things happened e.g. in 18th-century Europe but the immigrants in these cases were not military men even if (as in Russia) the government wanted a buffer against raiders.

    My understanding is that Valens wrongly thought he could manage the influx of some Goths, but that they had intentions of their own (other than “serve the emperor”) and far more came than was intended. The Cimbrians had also requested land, but of course they were all killed.

    1. From my reading, Roman imperial demographics were precarious (one calculation was that the average woman of childbearing age needed to have 5 children just to keep the population constant). Plagues, wars and such did not help – so taking in migrants was a useful option. One historian noted the difference between 2nd century practice, where the migrant leader would cross into Roman territory, walk between lines of legionaries, humbly petition an enthroned legate for admission and be read the terms, to the 4th century, where negotiations were conducted on neutral ground or even ‘barbarian’ territory, Roman and leader meeting on equal terms.

  31. Fascinating, especially the art stuff! I admit to having been one of those students who perceived a jump (fall) from realistic Roman art to cartoonish medieval portraits.

    Typos and awkward language:

    the rather artificial but importance field

    who may thus be mislead

    The Goths, a Germanic-language speaking people, pressured by the Huns had sought entry

    the empire isn’t destroy from outside

  32. There’s a parody version of this “Christian Dark Ages” graph, but expanded to cover all the Atlantises, Lemurias, and all manner of supposed Golden Ages postulated by crazy nationalist conspiracy theories. It’s hilarious.

    1. I found someone who claimed the dark ages started in 1500BCE and only ended in the 14C when the moors educated Europe.

  33. “Incomers” is a word. It means people who have come to

    live in a place not having been born there — Chambers.
    “Incomers” is a word. It means people who have come to

    live in a place not having been born there — Chambers.
    “Incomers” is a word. It means people who have come to

    live in a place not having been born there — Chambers.

  34. But Brett, how can Rome fall if it NEVER EXISTED.

    ‘Roman’ sites were actually greek sites and latin was invented by the inquisition as part of a coverup by the catholic church. If you just look closely you can see the cracks in the faced; victorian latin graffiti, fabricated relics by Mussolini and lack of erosion ON ALL ROMAN ARTIFACTS.

    It’s clear that modern historians are perpatrating a 500 year old catholic anti-witch anti-woman lie!

    1. Victorian graffiti? The Victorians weren’t real either. Did you know that so-called Victorian houses are less than 200 years old?

      1. I’ve heard, it was around that time that the moors educated the simple and primitive European mind and gave them literature.

  35. I wonder if technology improved quicker in the middle ages than in the roman period? Late Republic armour doesn’t look too different to late imperial armour while in comparison knights in 1066 look completely different to 15th century knights.

    Not to mention mechanical clocks, gunpowder and glasses are all medieval inventions. Rather the issue seems to be a massive decrease in social order and organization, one that woiuld reach it’s nadir in the 13th century I believe. Since the Carolingian empire wasn’t as decentralized as even 14th century france.

    1. 1066 knights don’t look that different from 500s warriors, I think; if there’s a tech take off — and there were developments in steelmarking — it’d be in the high and late middle ages, not the ‘Dark Ages’.

      > mechanical clocks, gunpowder and glasses are all medieval inventions.

      Gunpowder was a *Chinese* invention; while ‘medieval’ in time (800s earliest certain) it can hardly be ascribed to medieval Europe. Mechanical clocks go back to the 200s BC and Archimedes; later Europe eventually made advancements but I don’t know if that’s “continuity” or “decline and re-invention”.

      1. I know china invented gunpowder, never meant to ascribe it to Europe (although a lot of it’s development as a weapon was in Europe.
        Mechanical clocks as far as i’m aware are infrequent one offs in most culture, only becoming widespread between 1200-1400 due to the needs of monasteries.

        Also I was pretty certain I compared 1066 knights to 1500 knights. While i’m pretty sure 0 BCE warriors and 500 AD warriors are VERY similar.

        1. One hidden factor here is that when you look at certain kinds of “high craftsmanship” pre-industrial technology like glassware, metallic clockwork, or grand civic architecture…

          It’s easy to lose track of the difference between “this area lost this technology,” and “this area no longer had the means to fund specialists to make this stuff.”

          If you were a master glassblower in the 5th century Roman Empire, the odds were, you either already lived in the eastern half of the Empire, or were seriously considering moving there, because fewer and fewer people in the western half were willing to pay for fine glasswork. Finding customers was hard, finding interested apprentices was hard, and even if you did find an apprentice, they would just have an even harder time keeping the business going in the next generation.

          A community that hasn’t needed to build a new aqueduct or a new giant temple in 300 years because the population of the city is shrinking due to no longer getting free grain imports from North Africa… Well, they have very little use for “remember how to make aqueducts and giant temples.”

          And so on.

          A lot of this stuff wasn’t so much ‘lost’ as ‘stopped being economically viable to make, but persisted in other richer areas of the general ecumene where there was enough concentrated wealth to support the craftsmanship in question.

    2. From the intro Part III will cover “things” so probably any detailed discussion of individual materials or methods should wait until then.

      Worth remembering that “the middle ages” is a number of centuries over a large and varied landmass.

      There does seem to be an upswing in technological developments in the second half of the 15th century. The printing press is one, but there were also, according to the book I’m currently reading, the first successful (in Europe) attempts at introducing standardised measurements, and I think it’s around the 15th C that “Arabic” numbering with zero really takes off.

      The printing press itself probably was a huge magnifier in speeding up development, by making it much easier to distribute new ideas and diagrams. Standard measurements and better arithmetic are likewise closer to “words” rather than “things” but have a massive effect.

      I do wonder about innovations at the lower levels of society which might have been earlier. Does the adoption of the three field agricultural system count as a technological development? Not using lead for water pipes?

        1. Didn’t wind and water mills alongside mills for making paper really proliferate through the 13th century miny-renaissance?

          1. @Mary
            Of course they do, can’t have cheap printing press without cheap paper. Or cheaper bread without wind/water mills, or factories without clockwork.

      1. There are a bunch of technological inventions that either are invented, or at least spread, during the middle ages, things like new steelmaking techniques, horse collars, etc.

  36. Excellent read as usual!

    I wonder though if you can make the decline & fall / sudden break case in literature a lot stronger if you choose the breaking point to be the crisis of the third century instead of the actual disintegration of the western empire in the fifth century. I think the old Gibbon view of the decline & fall is also a lot more about the third century than about the actual collapse of the western empire — the first volume ends w/ Constantine after all, and I don’t know a lot of people who get past the first volume. My sense is that a lot of the Gibbon view gets transferred to the fall of the of the western empire itself in the 5th century because pop culture tends to overemphasize the suddenness of Roman collapse.

    I think the narrative you can tell if you choose the third century to be the breaking point instead would be something like this: you have this period covering the late Republic and the first two centuries of the empire where most of what we usually consider the greatest hits of (non-Christian) Roman literature and philosophy were written. This tradition peters off in the run-up to the crisis of the third century; after the crisis, a new Christian Roman literary and philosophic tradition that’s very much still in conversation with the old tradition rises out of the ashes even as the western empire itself continues to struggle to hold itself together.

    I don’t think you can tell a story of catastrophic & unrecoverable decline & fall without inappropriately dismissing patristic literature, but it does feel like there’s a case to be made that you can treat the history of Roman literature as the story of an old tradition that really does decline & fall in the third century and a new Christian tradition that replaces it in its aftermath.

  37. “Seubic” should be “Suebic” I guess?

    “Lucius Licinius Lucullus” – this guy has the best name ever.
    To add to your point about his retirement, in German we have the very fancy term “lukullische Genüsse” (“lucullian delights”) for sumptuous and exquisite food.

  38. Bret, I seem to have found only a few typos/corrections for this post:
    as will some become evident > soon become
    artificial but importance > important
    it as the Reformation in late antique studies > Late Antique?
    had to make due with their own > make do
    empire isn’t destroy from outside > destroyed
    Odoacer offered to submit to the authority of the Roman Emperor in the West > [East?]
    code as past of the law > part of the law (?)

  39. Well all these comments took off like a bottle rocket!

    I wanted to mention one thing. I am no Art Historian, either, but I was given to understand that the Veristic Style is now thought to be just as “idealized” and not-realistic as others, just in a different direction. That is, the faces are made to be all craggy and weather-beaten perhaps to a parodic degree, not because the real people didn’t have some lines and aging there, but because it made them look like strong, stern figures of age and *gravitas*. Of course, these traits were as glorified in Rome as youth and energy were in Greece.

    1. My understanding is that all of those statues look like old men, but there’s evidence not all of them were actually that old in life. Many of the statues have the same wrinkles on different faces, which does not happen to actual faces.

      1. I’m not enough of an expert on Roman art to really say, but it occurs to me what another piece of evidence would be.

        Do you see ‘veristic’ Roman statuary where men are given, for lack of a better term, undignified facial blemishes? Pox scars? Ugly facial scars? Saggy jowls and double chins?

        If yes, then it’s relatively likely that the artists were aiming for photorealism.

        If no, then it’s likely that they were aiming for a stylized ideal male facial appearance… only the idealized male of their society was a tough, grim-faced hardass of forty-five, not an energetic youth of twenty.

          1. I’d argue that that bust fulfils Simon’s criterion of evidence pretty well. No offense to anyone who looks like that patrician, but it’s pretty far from an ideal Roman face; if they were just carving a different ideal than we’d expect, they wouldn’t have carved that.

          2. The ideal was not looking strong or attractive. The ideal was looking old and dignified.

        1. Agreed. I think it’s similar to the American preference for positions of authority being 60-something white men with white hair (as evidenced by the dizzying array of them trying to get people to buy stuff on the TV).

          Different cultures with different standards for what a person of respect should look like.

  40. I’ve seen several political/environmental writers with no specific history training – Ehrlich, Hedges, Meadows, Mearsheimer, Tainter, Tverberg and yes, Diamond, to name a few – advance a thesis on the “Dark Ages” in various pieces that incorporates the continuity viewpoint but argues that there was, due to various environmental and/or resource depletion issues, a widespread drop in the carrying capacity of western Europe from as early as 200 a.d. and that the reduction in political and social complexity is just an inevitable consequence, akin to a termite mound’s response to famine.
    It’s very reductionist but do you consider it to be too fringe a view to be worth critiquing? I’ve seen it used to justify shooting migrant boats in online discussion under the term “lifeboat economics”.

    1. You may note that this post is “Part I” and that the contents of Part II and Part III – yet to come – are described in the second paragraph.

      What you are talking about fits under the heading of ‘economy and demography’ – Part III.

  41. It’s worth noting that the “Dung Ages” portrayal of medieval Europe in popular culture, found all over the internet, is closely tied to New Atheist anti-Christianity. There is a worthwhile blog, History for Atheists, whose author makes some of the same points Prof. Devereux makes here, and takes on ancillary canards in the New Atheist fake history.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation – some genuinely interesting articles and book recommendations there, so, seconded!

      I’d recommend against looking at the comments though, the author comes across as a fairly weak at discussion (and a rather obnoxious person overall). Does not do much service to his actual articles, unfortunately.

  42. A great and intriguing read, as always! And a necessary one, I’d say. The “Fall of Rome” concept still lingers in the collective subconsciousness – mine at least – even when one is aware on an intellectual level that it was more of an evolution into a new society, and less a cataclysm of Gibbon fame.

    That said, being a bit nitpicky, I wonder whether some of the “change and continuity” arguments don’t go too far? The linguistic argument in particular struck me as odd. Now, I’m no linguist, and my understanding of Latin in particular is very limited, but I would’ve thought that different versions of Latin used through the various phases of the Roman state (Old Latin, Classical Latin, Vulgar Latin) were, if not the same or intelligible, then at least very similar. I doubt anyone would say the same for a comparison between, say, 5th century Late Latin and the Old French of the Chanson of Roland, Old French’s Latin origins notwithstanding. Or maybe they would? Would be interesting if someone could expand on this. In essence, I think it was a bit more of a “change” and a bit less of a “continuity” as some of the presented arguments seem to indicate

    1. One problem with comparing Late Latin with either Classical Latin or Old French is that literary Latin (in which most surviving literature is written) became fossilised around the 1st/2nd century AD, because schoolchildren were taught to emulate the style of a small number of classic authors (Virgil, Livy, etc.). For an analogy, imagine if schools in the English-speaking world taught children to write like Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and had done since the seventeenth century: to someone who only had access to literary documents, it would seem like the English language had remained static for four hundred years, and if people started writing literature in everyday English instead, it would seem like a huge and rapid shift, when in fact it would just be that changes in language had been masked by literary conservatism.

      1. Something similar is actually believed to be happening to old english during the tail end of that period, written OE remains relatively similar in form until suddenly we’re straight into middle english (obviously exaggerating here) with basically no intermediate breaks. The theory is that there was a lot of change in the spoken language during the viking age that didn’t get passed on to the written word until later.

      2. As I understand, a similar but much more extreme situation arose in Byzantium, where the upper classes wrote in classical Attic Greek for a thousand years after the fall of the western Empire, while the demotic language continued to change. The result was that (i) deprived of contact with living language, literary Greek produced almost nothing of literary value and (ii) whatever rude vigor popular literary arts (songs, folk verses, maybe popular drama) possessed is lost to us, not having been recorded.

        That said, the language of St. Paul is recognizably the same as the language of Thucydides (though less elegant, to be sure), whereas I’m not sure to what extent the language spoken by a French merchant in 800 AD was recognizably the same as the language actually spoken by Augustine or Jerome.

        1. That said, the language of St. Paul is recognizably the same as the language of Thucydides (though less elegant, to be sure), whereas I’m not sure to what extent the language spoken by a French merchant in 800 AD was recognizably the same as the language actually spoken by Augustine or Jerome.

          True, though apparently by Polybius’ time (mid-2nd century BC) people were already having difficulty reading documents from the regal period (6th century BC), so it seems like Latin was just generally changing quicker than Greek, for some reason.

          1. Latin had basically no literature at all before the First Punic War, so there were less models to teach to children. You won’t teach children to speak like a law or a ritual hymn. That is why the language was faster to change than Greek. E.g. it is clear that the stress pattern was different before the 3rd centure BCE.

        2. “That said, the language of St. Paul is recognizably the same as the language of Thucydides (though less elegant, to be sure), whereas I’m not sure to what extent the language spoken by a French merchant in 800 AD was recognizably the same as the language actually spoken by Augustine or Jerome.”

          Indeed, thank you for this point – and also thanks to GJ for pointing out the developments in Latin. That was kind of what I was trying to get to: language change much less when you have true continuity than when having the “change and continuity”, specifically also because there are institutional (either official or cultural) forces that prevent the shift. But even without such extreme fossilization, the language still changes more slowly when there is true continuity. While we nowadays definitely don’t speak Shakespearean English, it should be comprehensible for anyone proficient in modern English, similar to how “the language of St. Paul is recognizably the same as the language of Thucydides”. I’ve made the same experience with German in law school, where we had to study some legal sources from late medieval and early modern time – tedious business to be sure, but generally comprehensible. In fact, according to some sources I recently read, it should take about 500-700 years for languages to drift from identical language to not being mutually intelligible anymore. Assuming that Old French of the 11th century (or even earlier) was not mutually intelligible anymore at all with 5th or 6th century late Latin, which should be a reasonable assumption, that drift

          Now, to be clear, I’m aware that this is not an argument against what Bret said, and I do realize that this “normal” drift does not take into account any disruptions, unlike the territory of Romance languages where there was a disruption. And to be sure, the level of replacement of language in the Romance world, where new languages evolved, but based on Latin, was nowhere near the level in, say, Britain, or the Balkans (sans Romania), where there was a total replacement. But the drift was much more pronounced, in particular in some places (say, France) than the others (presumably Italy), than it would have been without disruption or in case of a total assimilation of the newcomers’ culture (like, say, the Bulgar into medieval Bulgarian which is clearly Slavic). So: a bit more change and a bit less continuity.

        3. (Northern) French is an extreme case among the Romance languages, since Northern Gaul rapidly lost city-dwelling and villa-dwelling elites after 380 CE (according to Halsall) and may have had a comparably high influx of Germanic speakers as did Britannia. A merchant from 800 AD Capua or Tarragona might have had less difficulty in understanding 5th century Latin.

          1. Interesting, thank you! And yes, I presumed that (Northern) French is “low hanging fruit” in this context, ie most distanced from Latin. In the meantime, I also found a separate source that indicates the same thing (although I’m unsure how reliable it is).

            Then again, I was hesitant to argue with other languages, such as Ibero-Romance or Romanian, as these were exposed to other influences after the “fall” of Rome and the influx of “barbarians”.

    2. What you generally see all over the world, and right up to the introduction of audio recording/radio broadcasting, is this: everyone who has any need to converse outside of their birth community has the facility of code shift so dramatically that they can move even between mutually unintelligible dialects. Moreover, conversational fluency in multiple languages is simply expected for both educated and uneducated elites, and merchant classes developed trade languages which are mostly lost today. This broad ability to code shift has only really faded today for people with majoritarian privilege in their local nations, but of course the 20th century was largely about forcing industrialized people into nations where they were local majorities, forcing them to assimilate to their national majorities, etc. Verbal trilingualism is probably unremarkable for most of humanity at most points in history, including right now.
      But anyway, standards in language are a side effect of centralized education and mass media. So there was a period of several centuries in Gaul where Church Latin was a stable language kept from drifting while *in the same geography* the common speech was completely rudderless and also slightly different in every square kilometer. We can expect that the version of 5th century Late Latin spoken at home by illiterate people in the regions where the Song of Roland would initially have been performed was a lot closer to the language of the Song than any written document will prove, and we can also assume that there were unignorable differences in the languages.

  43. Was the late Roman Empire more or less supportive of scientific and technological innovation than say the early Imperial? Did the “fall” of Rome create a more hospitable environment for such development?

    Up above I got caught up in a discussion of late medieval / Renaissance development, which is several centuries past the topic of the original post. (Sorry Bret!) But maybe we should have that discussion instead around Rome, or absence thereof.

    So, considering words only – culture, literature, language, and religion – how good was the late Roman Empire for scientific and technological development?

    My view would be, no surprise if you’ve read my earlier comments, that it was not. Technological development benefits from tolerance if not active encouragement of intellectual property theft, cultural appropriation, and sacrilege / blasphemy. It also helps to have multiple small competing states, not one monolith.

    (For the necessity of sacrilege and blasphemy, short version is Giordano Bruno. Longer version, search ‘slate star codex kolmogorov complicity’)


    1. And what was Bruno’s great contribution?

      Only view of his I know offhand is that blacks are obviously a different species.

    2. I used Bruno as the example rather than Galileo precisely because Bruno wasn’t a genius with a major contribution. He’s representative of the great majority of scientists. My assumption is that a fair number of potential scientists saw what happened to him and decided “yeah my parents are right, I should get a job in banking” instead.

      But I raised the question because I don’t know the answer! Maybe it is acceptable to burn academics or researchers who don’t contribute. “Publish or perish” applied literally rather than as metaphor.

      And trying to stay in period, my question is about the late Roman Empire and what the intellectual environment (is that the right phrase?) was like, in comparison to what came before and after. Were the late Romans likely to do unpleasant things to scientists? How did the rate of technological and scientific advancement change during this period?

      1. Spherical trigonometry developed in Alexandria right up until ~ 400 AD. Ioannes Philoponos proposed inertia contra Aristoteles’ physics in the 6th century AD. The Hagia Sophia in the middle of the 6th century AD was a masterpiece of applied technology (and art). Just a few data points, obviously. You won’t find much development in the West because it became too poor.

        On the other hand, better ploughs and other agricultural technology may have developed in the Vistula region, outside the former Empire, in the 6th-8th centuries AD.

      2. Bruno wasn’t executed because he had scientific theories that the Catholic church didn’t like, he was executed for denying the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and several other kind of important Catholic doctrines.

        Now, he shouldn’t have been executed for that, either, but the idea that his contemporaries would look at his fate and come to the conclusion that “hmm, maybe I shouldn’t be a scientist” instead of “hmm, maybe I shouldn’t be a heretic” doesn’t fit with the facts of the case.

    3. “Technological development benefits from tolerance if not active encouragement of intellectual property theft, cultural appropriation, and sacrilege / blasphemy.”–That doesn’t bode well for the West today, does it, and especially not for American universities.

      1. I would say that the West today is harsh on intellectual property theft, quick to appropriate culture, and extremely tolerant of just about form of ‘sacrilege’ that doesn’t tend to reduce to “and this is why we’re justified in continuing to apply our boots to our favored kicking-boy.”

        I think the West will be fine on that front, or if it isn’t fine, will suffer because of cultural and scientific impoverishment caused by corporate-controlled lockdowns on the flow of ideas that threaten copyright and/or business models.

        1. Your “extreme tolerance” would be more apparent if your comrades weren’t engaged in physically assaulting Edward Wilson and Alison Stanger, firing Amy Wax and Erika Christakis, etc.

  44. Which is the – to put it extremely reductively – ‘Empires are bad, and them falling is good, and the extent to which the Roman Empire persisted was also bad’ school of history

    1. That vision applied absolutely is going to have some significant challenges in subsequent parts of this series. History is, as always, messy and resists easy summary.

      1. Yeah, that was perhaps an overly absolutist way to put it – though to be honest, it’s one of the most common positions among people I’ve known (with the runner up being ‘ra Ra SPQR, Rome was great let’s do it again).

        I think a better way to put it would have been who/what represents a broadly anti-imperialist reading of Roman history, but I didn’t want to invoke certain modern twitter applications of the term

      2. I think the closest I’m familiar with would be something like Terry Jones’ Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History

  45. Regarding late-antiquity/dark-age art as being stylized rather than of inferior technique of representing realism:

    Do we have any good examples to support this argument? As in, realistic portraits or sculptures from this time period on the same level of realism as the Roman sculptures that came before?

    Without examples, it’s not a thoroughly convincing argument that “it’s just style, man”. Any art student would know, sometimes people hide being the excuse of style when their technique is weak.

    1. If you look at the stylised portraits depicted above, many of them have realistic elements — e.g., the folds on the clothes are pretty realistic (at least to my eyes), and would require a good deal of skill to pull off correctly. If artists were capable of depicting intricate folds on clothing, I think they’d have been capable of depicting a few wrinkles on faces, if they’d wanted to.

      1. As an actual professional artist, I’d have to say no. There is a reason that the human form is generally regarded as the most difficult subject to represent in art, and almost every art school has training specifically just to draw the naked human and nothing else. It is called “life drawing”.

        Drapery is its own specialization in art as well, but you certainly cannot argue that just because you see some nice drapery, that they must have had the ability to do realistic faces and bodies if they wanted to. That is not a very strong argument.

        And even if it were true, then we should have at least some examples right? Just like how these days we have depictions of humans that are not all in anime style.

        1. It is not like the artists could do stuff for fun. If stylized was the fashion, the artists did what paid.

          1. Given that we’re talking about a skill that requires practice to hone, wouldn’t that mean that the skill to make realistic representations of humans was indeed lost for that time period?

            It’s not like you can do anime drawings for your entire career and then magically transfer that skill to make a realistic portrait the first time you try it. This is why one of the first pieces of advice to any aspiring artist is to practice with real references first, then add your stylization, not the other way around. A professional artist can go look at DeviantArt and pretty much instantly tell which fan arts are by kids who only draw anime, and which ones are drawn by people with actual practice referencing real humans before applying anime stylization. In art, people call the former “lack of fundamentals”.

            So…even if we assume the entire medieval world was monolithic and only commissioned artists to do that one style, the question is, did they still receive instruction and train the “fundamentals” of art, as we know it? If they did, then should we not have some artifacts of realistic representation, or art instruction manuscripts that reference realism?

          2. I kinda wish to point out that whatever the intricate ornaments and draperies are present in the Four Tetrarchs sculpture, the Augustus of Prima Porta has ornaments, too. To my amateur ones, more challenging ones.

            On the other hand, Four Tetrarchs is not made of marble but some other, maybe more difficult, stone.

          3. Given that we’re talking about a skill that requires practice to hone, wouldn’t that mean that the skill to make realistic representations of humans was indeed lost for that time period?

            Maybe, but “Artists (/artists’ patrons) were only interested in stylised art, and therefore lost the ability to do more realistic pieces” is a different claim to “Stylised art was an inferior attempt at realistic art”.

          4. GJ, yes that is a possibility, but honestly as an actual professional artist, we have some ability to judge art on a technical level, and we can often tell when someone is actually low-skilled vs stylistic. If you do any sort of technical art training, this is actually one of the things your art teacher will drill into you.

            Like, you can empirically test this. Take me or any other artist as a test subject. Give the subject a random selection of artwork from artists of known skill levels (but unknown to the subject, of course), say from DeviantArt or something. And use totally non-realistic stylizations, e.g. anime. Artists should have no problem identifying relative skill level of artists (as measured by some objective metric like years in training or other quantity like professional compensation salary). It wouldn’t matter that they’re drawing anime and not realistic people. I think you’ll see that we can identify some trend there, and convincingly score above random chance.

            Anyway, what I’m trying to get at with that thought experiment is that there is something there, like an artist’s spider sense. Most of the commonly cited examples of dark age art look like they’re just of lower quality, not an intentional stylization.

            Also note that aside from the quality in the piece itself, it’s really difficult to say exactly what is the root cause of the quality difference. Sometimes bad art is due to lack of skill, or the context (e.g. I would still draw crappy stick figures when playing a game of Pictionary), or maybe a lack of budget. You could, for example, argue that dark age artists were not fundamentally bad, but that the strained economy could not finance them properly for training as in other eras.

            At the end of the day, is that a responsibility of the artist or of the economic collapse? It’s an argument about interpretation, not about facts. The fact is that the skill was not there.

            (Again, I’m not 100% sure in my argument that it’s a genuine lack of skill. I’m just saying that’s what it looks like, and the arguments presented arguing for stylization isn’t very convincing to me).

          5. Correction to the above comment: instead of “look like they’re just of lower quality, not an intentional stylization.” Should actually read “lower quality, regardless of intentional stylization.” Dark age culture certainly would have a different style context than other eras and places. But in addition to that I think the skill level is also lower.

            And to add: this shouldn’t be surprising. This isn’t some idealized argument about “march of progress” that fantasizes about how humans are getting better.

            It’s actually statistics and economics. There are a lot more humans the closer you get to modernity, so if part of it is just pure chance of rolling a genius with art talent, you’d get more of these in a greater population. In addition to this more modern economies have more specialization that allow people to hone their specialty skill.

            You see this in other fields too. It’s why many scientific fields seem to make progress at much faster than historical rates. Because we’re rolling more dice and also getting better yields on our good rolls for talent.

          6. I think it was probably economics. I took an art history course a few years back, and the professor told us that it was just a change in style. But he also told us that, just before the middle ages, rich people were buying art in the older style, while poor people were buying the new style.

  46. It might be of interest for some of you, a lecture about the life of Sidonius Apolinarius, roman aristocrat during the times of the fall.

    “The career of Sidonius suggests a cause for the fall of the Roman Empire which is not generally emphasized: that the empire trained a noble class superbly well to compete in an artificial fashion for a series of empty honors. Their education blunted their creativity, and their energy was dissipated in meaningless pursuits. The late Roman noble was brave and honorable; talented and dogged, as Sidonius and Ecdicius proved during the siege of Auvergne. Such men could have saved the empire if they had not been so finely trained to waste their time. Sidonius had every opportunity to see the sham and waste; he lived to learn of the deposition of the boy emperor Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman Emperor in the West and yet seemed unable to comprehend that it was all over.”

    1. It seems to me there was no lack at all of Roman aristocrats hungry for the glory of the general or the imperial diadem. Much to the contrary, there was a surfeit of them, and their infighting was a major cause of the decline. What should Sidonius have done, in your opinion? Create a new nation of Gaul?

      Boëthius was one of the most, if not the most cultured aristocrat of his time – he wrote poems in metres that had lain dormant since Horace. Yet Boëthius’ downfall was apparently that he schemed to depose the “barbarian” king Theoderic and restore Roman rule, and that his scheming was discovered.

      There are things you can do and things you can’t do in a period of decline. Some Americans seem to have more of a difficulty in understanding limits.

  47. I’m curious if Prof. Devereux (or, in his default, anyone else) can recommend a good basic introductory history of late antiquity, i.e., one that presents current historiographical debates fairly, summarizes what is known, and gives a basic narrative and chronological framework of the period from, say, the sack of Rome to the Battle of Tours. The only history of this period that I have ever read is Gibbon’s.

    1. Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome is one good one. Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians is also good.

  48. Atilla has two important aspects to his story that people tend to forget.
    First that he was devestating large parts of the Eastern Roman Empire to force them to give him gold.
    Attila invaded the Western Roman Empire was because Honoria(the emperors sister) asked for help to escape an arranged marriage and Attila asked for half the empire as a dowry.

    Some interesting trivia. He turned back from Italy after meeting with Pope Leo with no records of what was said.
    After Aquileia was destroyed the survivors from Aquileia decided to build Venice.

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